The closing ceremony of the Sustainable Recycling Industries (SRI) project, hosted at the Swiss Embassy in Peru in June 2023, marked an important milestone as it concluded its operations in Peru and Colombia. This event symbolized not only the end of the project in these countries but also 15 years of cooperation between Switzerland and Peru/Colombia in developing a sustainable Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE, or ‘e-waste’) recycling sector. Both countries are now showcasing a thriving recycling business sector underpinned by a robust framework of norms and standards for WEEE recycling.
Addressing the growing issue of e-waste
The global surge in e-waste production along with the rapid electrification and digitization of human activities has been alarming. In Peru and Colombia, the challenge was particularly pronounced, with 2019 alone witnessing a generation of almost 200,000 tons of WEEE in Peru and 185,000 tons in Colombia. At the initial stages of implementation of the SRI project in 2013, only a fraction of these were processed by formal recyclers (1.1% in Peru and 1.5% in Colombia), leading to environmental hazards and health risks for informal workers.
These and other challenges such as outdated technical standards or limited regulatory frameworks led to the implementation of the SRI project with measures across four key implementation areas:
- Designing and establishing a robust policy and legislative framework;
- Defining normative requirements and methods for measuring performance for a level playing field;
- Strengthening the recycling business environment and value chain by fostering professionalization of the industry;
- Introducing and supporting the local development of technological arrangements for the safe treatment of problematic waste fractions.
A main objective embedded in the project design was to ensure that the changes introduced by the project would last in time, generating a self-sustaining process of continuous improvement.
What has the project accomplished in Peru and Colombia?
As result of the project’s activities, both Peru and Colombia experienced a flourishing of the recycling business sector, empowered by a robust set of norms and standards. Other benefited stakeholders were the informal sector, through increased professionalization and job opportunities; public authorities through the revalidation of their role, the improved efficiency of the value chain and an upgraded inter-stakeholder dialogue; and the public through a higher awareness of both the e-waste problem and ways to collaboratively solve it.
Peru’s key stakeholders including authorities and recyclers have improved their knowledge and have a clear understanding of their role, responsibility and obligations, all defined in increasingly ambitious WEEE regulations.
Colombia has established itself as a leading country in Latin America in the management of WEEE, thanks to the positioning that it has achieved in the governments’ environmental agenda, the commitment of the private sector and the further professionalization and growth of the recycling sector. It now has a solid legal and regulatory framework, a collection network made up of several take-back agreements and a growing industry of close to 80 companies that formally treat 20% of the WEEE generated.
Proving sustainable change: key metrics of success
In both countries, the formal recycling rate (percentage of secondary resources recovered from e-waste) shows an impressive exponential increase. In Peru, the rate of formal recycling of WEEE increased from 0.9% in 2008 up to 6.1% in 2023 while in Colombia, the rate increased from 0% in 2008 to 12% in 2023. Notably, the management of WEEE saw a substantial improvement, with recycling increasing from 800 tons in 2008 to 14,732 tons in 2022.
Another interesting indicator is the environmental benefit in Global Warming Potential (avoided greenhouse gas emissions) throughout the program. An environmental impact assessment tool developed by the Swiss Federal Institute for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) was used to determine the environmental benefits of collecting and treating WEEE within the framework conditions. The net benefit in Colombia in 2022 amounts to -39’182 tCO2eq. Net negative emissions show that more CO2eq has been saved than caused through recycling activities. These avoided emissions are equivalent to 18’685 times the annual emission of an average car. In Peru, the net benefit in 2022 is -13’140 tCO2eq, which is the equivalent of 6’266 times the annual emission of an average car.
Furthermore, the number of authorized recyclers and the number of take-back agreements underline the positive development and improvement in the WEEE recycling. While in 2008 in Colombia, there were only 8 authorized recyclers and 0 take-back agreements, by 2023 there are already 80 authorized recyclers and 69 take-back agreements in place.
Challenges ahead: Navigating the path forward for sustainable e-waste management
Although these numbers show a significant improvement throughout the years, the work is not yet over, and more efforts are needed in the future to solve the remaining challenges.
Especially in Peru, the percentage of WEEE treated formally is still low (around 6%) compared to the world’s average (17%). For this reason, it is necessary that the Ministry of the Environment of Peru (MINAM) and other actors continue to promote strategies that improve collection and segregation including the involvement of the informal sector. Local governments need to be allocated additional resources to promote WEEE collection processes.
In Colombia, it is also necessary to improve collection channels and increase the volumes of WEEE formally treated. This could accelerate the business growth of WEEE processing companies. Additionally, the current collection programs could be extended to new WEEE categories (e.g. lighting, IT devices, etc.).
As we look into the future, aligning WEEE value chain organizations with the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals is crucial. Ongoing efforts should concentrate on addressing remaining challenges, promoting circular economy principles, and fostering international cooperation projects interested in advancing sustainable waste management.
In closing this chapter, the Sustainable Recycling Industries project leaves a lasting legacy of positive change and lays the foundation for a more environmentally and socially sound approach to managing e-waste, while also contributing to increased material circularity.