By Leila Nachawati and Maja RomanoPublished on
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The evolution of our digitally connected world has moved at a frenetic pace of consumption with little regard for the life cycle of digital devices. The resulting exacerbation of an already tenuous climate crisis reveals the urgent need for significant transformation. “We need to radically improve our relationship with nature, and that requires rethinking decisions and reorganising many processes.” This quote is taken from A guide to the circular economy of digital devices, published by APC. In this context, education is essential to ensure that climate justice is central to how we develop, use and dispose of technology.
In this fourth part of the series on Our Circular Future, Plácido Silva, of APC member organisation Colnodo, tells us about good and bad e-waste management practices in Colombia and their impact on education.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In your case study, you presented achievements but also challenges in e-waste management. Tell us about the current situation. Have conditions worsened or improved?
Our work covers rural areas that are far from Bogotá and with which contact is not always easy. The digital divide in which Colnodo works is wide and deep, but we continue to make progress both in bringing connectivity to these remote areas, which have not been considered profitable by large providers, and in education-related initiatives. The Computadores para Educar (Computers for Education) project continues to move forward in its efforts to close the technology gap by fostering innovation. Today we are at a ratio of four students per computer.
We are currently receiving more support from industries, including from the company PCSHEK, which collects electrical and electronic equipment and sees whether it can be recycled and delivered to the community. This whole process is improving quality of life for children.
Based on your experience, how do you see the future of circular economies?
In the case of Colombia we are witnessing quite a lot of momentum in this kind of economy. In its development plan, the new government stresses the importance of fostering the circular economy and green growth.
The National Association of Industrial Operators is engaged in these efforts, which it views as an opportunity for business development and sustainability processes. This has resulted in a strengthening of material recycling companies, especially those that recycle electrical and electronic equipment.
More specifically, what priorities would you highlight, in your local setting, in that effort toward building a circular future?
A crucial issue identified has to do with plastic polymers. A treaty is currently being negotiated on pollution caused by toxic substances introduced in polymers, which are materials that are hazardous for human health and the environment. These substances undermine the circular economy by making it toxic.
With the aim of addressing these risks, Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development published the document “Technical guidelines for handling and managing plastic materials recovered from WEEE and dismantled vehicles”. These guidelines provide practical tools and reference material for the value chain responsible for managing recycled waste, in particular for those that recycle waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), and offer alternatives for closing their cycle. This is critical for supporting the economic sustainability of recycling processes in Colombia.
Tell us about good practices. What policies or regulations would you highlight as positive or encouraging examples in the case of Colombia?
In the field of electronic waste, the government has been working for years on regulating parts of the process, from separation at the source to computer delivery.
Also, as consumers we have learned about and adapted ourselves to this process, following the necessary steps and respecting the designated delivery places, being responsible with the environment and human health... This is so with electrical and electronic waste, but also with packaging and other contaminating products. And there is a differentiated responsibility that people are assuming, with everyone playing their part.
What about the challenges and difficulties? What bad practices, policies or regulations would you highlight?
How can we go about developing a pollution-free circular economy? That is a key question. The circular economy is gaining followers because it allows us to improve production systems, increase prosperity, and cut down raw material demand, but we also need to reduce health and environmental risks. We need to train people working in this economy so they can identify the more contaminating products and remove them from the recycling chain.
[Image: The second edition of the ICTs and Environment training course conducted by Nodo TAU, the Sustainable Development Network and Colnodo, with the support of APC.]
The circular economy boom also reminds me in a way of another boom that we saw in the 1970s, with the concept of “total quality” coined by Japanese companies. It became a marketing mantra that was repeated over and over but was never translated into good practices. We do not want to see the same thing happen with the circular economy, with it all being reduced to a marketing campaign.
That is a real risk faced by the circular economy: the risk of becoming one of those trendy projects that upon review reveals poor results because they failed to involve all the variables and the only thing that mattered was the market image. This approach, sometimes referred to as “greenwashing”, promotes a green image without making any substantial changes or achieving significant results. That is not what we are aiming for or what the planet needs.
Going back to the guide, what uses do you think it has? What would you like it to expand on in future editions?
An issue that I would very much like to see it deal with in greater depth has to do with mutual learning and enhancement networks. The guide should serve as a basis for adopting and implementing solutions in certain places around the world by drawing on successful experiences in other places. In Colnodo’s case, we are working with, among others, the Media Awareness and Justice Initiative (MAJI), also a member of the APC network, which has a lot of experience in the use of digital technologies and data gathering for environmental protection in Nigeria. We have to avoid duplicating efforts or reinventing the wheel and we need to share learning experiences among Africa, Latin America… That is something that benefits the community as a whole.
Our Circular Future series
In this new series, we reconnect with members who contributed to our guide on the circular economy of digital devices, this time about their vision for the future of these economies. In part one, we speak with CITAD about what is needed in the right to repair movement, emerging trends and lessons learned and missed. Read: “The bottom line is to understand that linearity and growth will not go together”: Introducing Our Circular Future, a series on the future of circular economies
In part two of this special series, we spoke with Florencia Roveri at our Argentina-based member Nodo TAU. From supporting youth with future e-waste projects to exploring the challenges to electronic waste treatment, Nodo TAU has been advocating for better ICT recycling practices in the community. Read: Our Circular Future: “Our strength comes from addressing multiple needs like the environment, youth employment and using technology for social use”
In this third part of our special series on Our Circular Future, Syed Kazi of Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) in India talks to us about how one of the highest-consuming regions of the world needs to urgently adopt circular economy approaches across all sectors. Read: Our Circular Future: "We must adopt the circular economy without waiting for the government to say, ‘Hey, this is a time bomb now'"
In this fourth part of the series on Our Circular Future, Colnodo’s Plácido Silva tells us about good and bad electronic waste management practices in Colombia and their impact on education. Read: Our Circular Future: "We don’t want to see the circular economy become a new marketing campaign"
In the fifth part of Our Circular Future series, Leandro Navarro from Barcelona-based APC member Pangea explores ways to build mobile phones that are socially and environmentally responsible as well as how principles of reuse are essential for social inclusion. Read: Our Circular Future: "If you're reading this, you’re part of the environmental problem"