Gender and E-Waste:
Policy Considerations for Developing Countries
The document explores the gender dimensions of electronic waste management and presents the various policy options available to developing countries in terms of four spheres of action that will be needed - governance, education, finance, and technology spheres in the form of a "GEFT Policy Matrix".
Developing countries are facing critical policy priorities to adopt an integrated approach to e-waste management: how do we look at the entire life-cycle of electronic goods to manage e-waste? Since most e-waste processing and recycling is undertaken by women in the informal sector, this brings gender dimensions the fore: What issues do we need to consider in incorporating gender issues in e-waste management? What policies do we need to implement? What can governments, business/industry, and the broader civil society do?
The document outlines interventions at two levels: At the global level, the supportive policies that will create a safe, healthy, and productive working environment for women in the e-waste sector, requiring action in both the "production" countries (i.e., where the e-waste is generated) and in "recycler" countries (i.e., where the e-waste is processed and recycled). At the local level, manufacturers and recyclers will have to work together to achieve and implement solutions in the governance and education spheres.
E-Waste, Gendered approach, developing countries
The twin processes of globalization and urbanization has led to vast changes in our lifestyle patterns, resulting in both positive and negative impacts. Globalization - the free movement of goods, people, and money worldwide - has enabled a variety of technologies, products, and skills to be produced and used predominantly in communities that are rapidly urbanizing - cities with high population densities.
While the lifestyle changes have substantially increased the quality of life and overall well-being of people around the world, it has also resulted in a number of negative impacts, particularly in relation to the generation and management of waste, GHG emissions, air/water pollution and a number of other problems. Much of the current global environmental problems that we face today - climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification to name a few - arise from these processes and trends.
A key impact of "improved" urban lifestyles has been solid waste. According to the World Bank [Kaza et.al, 2018], the world generated 2.01 billion tons of municipal solid waste annually, with at least 33 percent of that not managed in an environmentally safe manner. Each person generates about 0.74 kilos of waste daily, with higher income countries generating almost 5 kilos per person per day (34 percent of the total waste generated worldwide). Metals have accounted for four percent of municipal wastes, with glass (five percent), plastics (12 percent), paper (17 percent) and organic (44 percent) forming the other major categories.
Within the overall context of municipal wastes is that of electronic wastes or e-waste. E-waste is generally defined as electrical and electronic equipment that has been discarded by its owner as waste, without the intent to reuse it, including, for example, households and business electronic components, computer equipment and monitors, and a wide range of other equipment used in our daily lives [ITU 2020]. E-wastes are also commonly referred to as WEEE or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment
The world generated about USD 57 billion worth of electronic waste worldwide, which is the total value of materials that can be recovered from e-waste. Such materials include aluminum, copper, iron, glass, and more valuable and rare materials such as gold. Despite this staggeringly high value, only 20 percent of e-waste has been collected and recycled [Blade et.al, 2017]. The remaining 80 percent was landfilled, inappropriately discarded, or simply put in storage by the user.
The International Telecommunications Union points out that discarded mobile phones are one of the fastest growing e-waste streams and can contain high levels of valuable materials. Studies carried out by ITU and its partners [ITU 2020] report a 21 percent increase in the global generation of e-waste since 2014, fueled by higher electric and electronic equipment consumption rates (growing three percent annually), shorter lifecycles and limited repair options.
Low recycling rates for e-waste has highlighted the huge loss of valuable and critical raw materials contained within e-waste, which could have been recovered and recycled to manufacture new products [UNU/StEP 2014]. Serious environmental concerns about e-waste have also been brought to the fore. E-waste is mostly being discarded in landfills, where toxic chemicals within them could potentially contaminate the soil and water. For example, e-wastes can contain mercury in liquid-crystal display screens, lead in cathode-ray tubes, or cadmium in semiconductors and batteries. E-wastes generally contain hazardous materials such as lead, barium, phosphorous, beryllium, cadmium, mercury, and some dioxins and hydrocarbons.
Another key problem of low-recycling rates for e-waste in high-income countries where it is generated (but increasingly in middle-income countries as well), is that along with high costs of labour for recycling, results in it being illegally shipped to developing countries, where much of the recycling is done within the informal sector. The main "recipient" countries for e-waste are in Latin America, Africa (particularly Ghana and Nigeria) and Asia-Pacific (particularly China, India, Vietnam)
Some of the globalized problems of e-waste management do indeed fall under the purview of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) such as the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions . But in reality. their jurisdiction within developing countries is weak, since many of those countries have either not signed the conventions, or weakly implement the obligations under the conventions. Besides, shipping of e-waste to developing countries is mostly done illegally and hence is not able to fall within the processes of the three MEAs
The same holds true for laws and regulations in high-income countries such as the European Union's WEEE Directive. The Directive, or EU-wide legislation, sets out the responsibilities of EEE producers for the collection and recycling of their products at the end of their lifecycle. But its jurisdiction and influence are limited to the EU region and not in countries and locations where e-waste is actually recycled in the informal sector. Even in low-income countries where the e-waste is recycled, governments are reluctant to do anything , as much of the recycling happens in the informal sector, which lies outside the legal purview of governments.
The challenges of e-wastes are therefore three-fold - (1) the sheer volume of e-waste being generated and its growing trends, (2) the very low rates of recycling and recovery of materials from e-waste in high-income countries where they are generated, and (3) the "globalization" of e-waste, where they are illegally shipped predominantly to developing countries for recycling and material recovery in the informal sector.
Gender and E-Waste Management: Why is it important?
We need to remember that systematized collection and recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of e-waste. For example, in 2019, only 9.3 million tons (17.4 percent) of e-waste was officially documented as collected and recycled, the rest of which was probably dumped in landfills, traded, or recycled under substandard conditions, and in the informal sector [ITU 2020].
Despite an increasing number of countries adopting national e-waste policies, legislation, or regulations, in most regions however, regulatory systems are non-existent, enforcement is weak, and the collection and proper management of e-waste is poor.
E-waste can negatively impact human health and the environment if not managed in an environmentally sound manner. In most of the countries where e-waste is recycled and materials recovered, infrastructure for e-waste management is not fully established or in fact completely absent - especially when carried out by the informal sector.
The recycling and material recovery of e-waste in developing countries, particularly when it is done predominantly in the informal sector, places unequal burdens, responsibilities and impacts for women. The economic opportunities of proper e-waste management, with particular focus on women who work in the management of e-waste becomes an important issue with proper awareness and training/capacity building. The negative effects that e-waste processing has in local environment, particularly at specific health and hygiene issues due not only to many hazardous materials and chemicals used in electronic equipment, but also to the acids and other chemicals that are used in separating component materials during recycling. This is also an important issue, with special focus on reproductive health, loss of quality of life and lifestyles, etc. since, in many cases, informal sector activities tend to take place in residential areas of the recyclers.
Of added significance for local and national governments is the role of women as drivers of more efficient use of recycling in all aspects of the life cycle management of electronic equipment and wastes. As the Beijing Platform of Action points out (Economic diagnosis - F1 and F3, and the environmental diagnosis - K2 and K3, components of BPA), a properly designed and managed e-waste processing system can meet both economic and environmental goals to improve the status of women informal workers [UN Women, 2015].
E-waste follows a range of pathways after disposal, including formal and informal recycling, storage, and dumping, in both high-income and low-income country contexts. An appropriate and holistic approach to the globalized e-waste challenges lies in both e-waste "producer-countries" as well as its "recipient-countries" - which should look at the entire lifecycle of e-waste. A typical lifecycle of e-waste will include the following stages:
Some of the high-value materials recovered from e-waste recycling include silver, gold, platinum, palladium, ruthenium, copper, tin, antimony, cobalt, bismuth, selenium, and indium. Besides these materials, e-waste also includes highly hazardous/toxic materials such as lead, cadmium, polychlorinated biphenyls, polybrominated biphenyls and mercury as well as other toxic components such as PVC and brominated flame retardants.
While larger electronic goods used in industries and businesses are mostly recycled in-country due to the ease with which they can be disassembled and reused, smaller consumer electronic goods usually have a larger mix of different materials and are more labour intensive to disassemble and are therefore exported (often illegally) to less developed countries where they are recycled by women in the informal sector using low-tech methods such as manual dismantling, open burning and acid leaching in order to recover gold, copper and other valuable metals. These methods generate subsistence livelihoods for workers but also result in significant hazards to human health and the environment as a result of the toxic materials that are also embedded in consumer electronics.
The question of women's participation in the informal sector is well known [UN Women 2019, ILO 2018, OECD 2012]. A disproportionate percentage of workers in the informal sector are women. UN Women estimates that in South Asia, over 80 percent of women in non-agricultural jobs are in informal employment; in sub-Saharan Africa, 74 percent; and in Latin America and the Caribbean, 54 percent [UN Women, 2019].
Understanding and targeting the nexus between informality and gender can go a long way in addressing the e-waste challenge in low-income countries where it is recycled. The starting point to a gendered approach to e-waste management is to also consider the broader context of gender issues in general - the working conditions of women in the informal sector.
The uncertain, insecure, risky, and criminalized working conditions of the informal sector are compounded by a lack of awareness of health and environmental risks from e-wastes, and a lack of organized business and market networks for recycling e-wastes. Other issues such as lack of appropriate skills and technologies to process e-wastes, childbearing and household responsibilities, safe living environments, also define the nexus. Lower levels of income, education, skills, and knowledge about e-waste management further add to the disadvantageous situation that women find themselves [Srinivas, 2015].
Need for Change
From an e-waste perspective, the primary need to reduce and manage e-waste requires an acknowledgement and understanding the changes in attitude that are needed for a coherent gender-sensitive approach among the complex multitude of stakeholders involved. These stakeholders operate at different levels, from global to local, for various objectives. A number of changes will be needed in the way these stakeholders operate in order to bring about better working and living environments for informal workers processing e-wastes. For example:
Finding a balanced middle ground between the challenges of better e-waste management on one hand, and gender-sensitive policies on the other, are important for developing countries, particularly since women play a disproportionately large role in e-waste processing. Such an approach would take advantage of the economic opportunities offered by e-wastes, and at the same time to create safe and viable working/living conditions for the workers who process e-wastes. Concepts and management tools that can help mutually support e-waste and gender policies are listed in Table 1 below.
Table 1: Examples of Concepts and policies for
a Gendered Approach to E-Waste Management
There are also a number of broader supportive policy contexts that can help provide better support for women in the e-waste sector. Such policies will need to be taken into account to find a middle ground and jointly address the challenges of both e-waste and gender spheres. These can include, for example,
There are four overall policy spheres under which the above examples can be categorized - (a) the regulatory/governance sphere, (b) technology and product development, (c) consumer-focused awareness building and (d) recycler focused capacity-building and training.
Table 2: Stakeholder Analysis: Levels and Tasks Tasks
It becomes clear from the above that a broad range of different stakeholders also need to be involved, undertaking tasks at different levels, from global to local, bringing in different resources and knowledge sets into the picture to take action on the e-waste front. For example, as illustrated in Table 2, at the global level, UN and other international organizations focus on longer-term, "soft" issues, while at the local level, consumer groups and workers unions focus on short-term, "hard" issues.
The supportive policies that will create a safe, healthy, and productive working environment for women in the e-waste sector requires action in both the "producer" countries (i.e., where the e-waste is generated) and in "recycler" countries (i.e., where the e-waste is processed and recycled).
At the global level, in "producer" countries, governments need to put in place laws and regulations that outline the responsibilities for the collection and recycling of products at the end of their lifecycle, or implement obligations under MEAs such as the Rotterdam, Stockholm or Basel Conventions. At the national level, governments and public agencies of "recycler" countries need to be provided assistance on awareness raising on workers' rights and informal sector policies, develop train-the-trainer packages, encourage NGO and civil society participation on e-waste and gender issues.
At the local level, manufacturers and recyclers will have to work together to achieve and implement solutions in the governance and education spheres. They include, for e-product manufacturers, implementing product take-back systems at their end of life, and instituting EPR, CSR and other initiatives, the Design for Environment approach, or material labelling/tracking systems (especially for hazardous/toxic components) also help in streamlining and facilitating safe and efficient recycling of e-waste. For recyclers, initiatives could include distribution of PPE and safety gear/tools and creating a safe working and living environment. Better worker awareness and education, streamlining the recycling markets, or skill development and on-the-job training also help in ensuring the risks and hazards associated with e-waste processing can be reduced or eliminated.
Creating a safe and risk-free environment for informal workers in e-waste processing also requires advocacy and pressure on the electronic industry to take action on the e-waste problem (this, indeed, lies at the core of the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR), which can come from three fronts: (a) National and local governments can exert pressure through appropriate laws, rules and regulations; (b) industry associations, business groups and chambers of commerce can, individually and jointly, develop guidelines and recommendations that individual industry members can adopt; and (c) NGOs, universities and training institutions, including consumer and end-user groups, can target awareness raising seminars and campaigns, and skills and vocational training for the industries. Incorporating these actions into appropriate Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies can also help industries undertake the necessary tasks.
The GEFT Policy Matrix
Solving the complex picture of problems and issues outlined in the previous sections requires an equally complex packages of actions/solutions that are implemented by different stakeholders at different levels - from global to local. These actions/solutions can be categorized into four groups - governance, education, finance, and technology.
Figure 1: The GEFT Policy Matrix
When laid out in the form of a matrix, called the "GEFT Policy Matrix", we can clearly lay out the governance, education, finance, and technology actions that need to be taken, and who has to take them at which level [Figure 1]. The matrix also helps in identifying where lacks and gaps in action exist.
The package of actions for each cell will outline what action needs to be taken by which stakeholder - government agencies, business and industry groups, or civil society entities. Action related to governance (for example, laws, legislation, rules, regulations, including monitoring and evaluation of the environment that supports the laws) are predominantly the purview of government agencies, while the responsibility for education (for example, awareness raising, information campaigns, on-the-job training, skill development etc.) lies with NGOs and universities. Finance (for example taxes, subsidies, loan programmes, fines/penalties etc.) is the responsibility of local governments as well as banks and financial institutions. Finally, technology (for example, product and technology development, including skills and capacity building for the use of technologies) is the responsibility of business entities as well as universities and business groups/industry associations.
In addition to the above, the cells in the GEFT Policy matrix also help in understanding what individual action is needed during the entire lifecycle of the e-waste material - collection and storage, transportation, sorting and dismantling, shredding, separation, and final disposal - to ensure that the workers processing the waste are doing so in a safe environment. The discussion below covers the four spheres of action - GEFT - within the matrix and the issues that need to be considered
Some of the key issues to be considered in the sphere of governance related to national laws and local regulations, particularly related to e-waste management. These can relate to bringing together laws on broader issues such as waste management and environmental pollution prevention, to implementing codes and standards related to e-waste (for example, the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment or WEEE Directive of the European Union).
Several social and environmental aspects are included within the concept of a "circular economy", which many national and local governments in developing countries are now transforming to incorporate circularity in their economic and environmental policies. This will provide a good precedence to also include issues related to e-waste and gender into circular economy policies.
Broader national and local policies and programmes on gender and development that are in place can be adopted to ensure that support for women's groups and NGOs can be provided to raise awareness, train, and educate informal sector workers who process e-waste.
Regulations regarding eco-labelling, particularly related to hazardous and toxic materials used in electronic products need to be more stringently be applied, especially visual and easy to understand and commonly used labels that can help create a safer working environment for e-waste workers. Integrating such labelling systems into training and awareness raising programmes (targeted at both industry entities as well as informal worker groups/associations) help in better recognizing and adopting of e-waste labels.
Policies and regulations related to product and waste tracking systems (especially those enabled to more recent technologies such as blockchain ) will need to be strengthened and implemented strictly to avoid the problems of illegal shipments of e-wastes to developing countries without the associated responsibilities of the product's manufacturers and users.
The primary responsibility of the above issues lies with national and local governments, but international organizations such as the UN or the International Standards Organization (ISO) can train governments officials and help draw appropriate laws and regulations. NGOs, universities, and think-tanks can also help government agencies to initiate and implement policies and projects on gender and e-waste issues. Responsibilities in governance issues also lie with private sector entities in issues such as CSR programmes to support community-based action by NGOs and other civil society groups, or instituting EPR policies for e-waste processing. Companies can also ease the situation of e-waste with appropriate information disclosure to help recycling of their products through manuals, labels, and other disclosure mechanisms.
Due to the complex issues of gender and poverty, which lie at the core of e-waste processing in developing countries, education becomes a key sphere for action. Awareness raising among e-waste workers on issues such as component materials (particularly those that are hazardous and toxic such as lead, mercury, and other substances) used in electronic products and knowledge on the proper handling of acids and chemicals usually used for material separation, are important starting points for educational programmes.
Proper handling of e-waste and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) should be highlighted in training programmes, as much of the recycling and extraction of materials in e-waste is done by mechanical shredding and acid-based separation of the component materials. Education programmes for informal workers, as mentioned above, should also include understanding of manuals and labels used in electronic products, so that e-waste can be processed safely.
Since most informal sector workers would find it difficult to take time off from work to participate in education programmes, they have to be designed to be delivered as on-the-job training sessions. This, as a consequence requires the creation of Train-the-Trainer packages to enable a broader range of stakeholders to participate in and implement community-based education programmes for e-waste processing.
Since a majority of informal sector workers involved in e-waste processing work in small, scattered workshops, delivery of educational programmes also requires a diverse range of stakeholders working at different levels of delivery to implement the programmes. For example, while UN and international organizations can assist in implementing model projects to record best practices which can be adopted for different local situations, Universities and research institutions can help in customizing and delivering training programmes that can be delivered at the community level in partnership with NGOs and community groups.
Ensuring that funds are available for different aspects of the processing of e-waste, particularly in developing countries is a critical element for enabling safe working environments. This includes public funds, as well as private funds from manufacturers, consumers, and other sources.
National and local government agencies and ministries need to ensure that appropriate funding is available through budgeted funding for gender development programmes and e-waste management systems. Taxes and subsidies, and bank guarantees and special low-interest loans for funding gender and e-waste projects can help meet the financial needs.
Some countries have also instituted industry-based fines and penalties, particularly where traceability systems of electronic products have been put in place. Consumer-based fees for recycling of e-waste processing is another way to ensure funds availability for e-waste programmes.
Donor or third-party funding for gender programmes as well as for education and training activities, are important for universities, NGOs, and community groups to undertake their activities, especially in a distributed community-based manner, where most of the informal workers are situated.
Technology still remains a sphere of action that receives the most attention among policies targeting e-waste processing. With informal enterprises primarily responsible for e-waste, most "technologies" are locally made and low-end technologies. With the involvement of other stakeholders such as universities and research institutions, a concerted and gendered approach to technology solutions needs to look at the entire life-cycle of the post-consumer e-wastes, including collection, storage, transportation, sorting, dismantling, shredding/crushing, separation (magnetic/acid/water) and material recovery.
Different technologies are needed for different aspects of the e-waste lifecycle, and understanding the characteristics of each technology/solution will go a long way to ensuring that precautions and the social/gendered aspects of technology can also be taken into account. Taking a lifecycle approach to study the technology used will ensure that the technology or technique promotes safe working conditions for the informal workers and reducing negative impacts on the local environment - pollution, emissions, and wastes, without affecting the potential recovery of useful and valuable materials.
The responsibility for creating a safe and secure working environment for informal sector workers lie not only with informal entrepreneurs and local governments in developing countries, but also with electronic product manufacturers. Recent considerations have focused on design for environment (DfE) approach, where products incorporate post-consumer environmental aspects right at the design stage itself. This is particularly important for electronic products that contain hazardous and toxic materials in their setup, and will go a long way to prevent adverse working conditions common today. A related concept that has taken currency is design for disassembly (DfD), where manufacturers incorporate the issue of ease of disassembling their products for safe and secure recycling and separation of component materials.
Within a larger context, decision-making criteria related to environmentally sound technologies (ESTs) as advocated by Chapter 34 of Agenda 21  could also be considered. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, ESTs are "… technologies that protect the environment, are less polluting, use all resources in a more sustainable manner, recycle more of their wastes and products and handle residual wastes in an environmentally-friendly manner" (UNEP. 2018). Considering the hazards and risks that are associated with electronic products and wastes, incorporating ESTs principles right at the design and production stages provide an additional strong safety barrier for safe and secure recycling of e-wastes.
Proper documentation of materials used in electronic products, particularly those that are hazardous and toxic, can help in more safer and efficient ways to recover materials from e-waste. This can take the forms of manuals and instructions, labelling components or use of international recognized iconography for hazardous/toxic substances.
As illegal shipping of e-wastes to developing countries still remain common and "cost-effective" for OECD countries, EPR principles can be activated with product tracking systems, including the use of smart technologies to ensure responsibility and traceability of electronic products and use.
What is clear from the above discussion is the fact that while private sector entities are primarily responsible to design and manufacture their products to make them not just aesthetic and convenient, but also environmentally safe and recyclable, policies should also encourage universities and research institutions to monitor and evaluate local conditions where e-wastes are recycled, and recommend appropriate and customized technology solutions for the private sector. Government policies that promote and support technology research and development also help in prioritizing technologies and products that can facilitate safe recycling (for example, those promoted by circular economy policies).
Conclusion: Challenges and Opportunities
The problem of e-waste is indeed a complex one - in higher income countries, it is changing lifestyles and fast phase of development and growth that has necessitated the use for increasing number of electric and electronic equipment resulting in increasing amounts of e-waste. In lower-income countries, it is the economic opportunities and income and job generating potential of e-waste processing, albeit risky and dangerous if not done properly, especially for women workers in the informal sector.
The costs of recycling and recovering component materials in-country being high has resulted in the illegal shipment of such wastes to developing countries where the valuable materials are recovered. But this creates a different cycle of challenges as much of the recycling and recovery happens in the informal sector, where women workers predominate. Low incomes, low skills, and education levels, as well as poor working environments and health means that much of overall conditions in which e-wastes are processed and recycled are very poor, with the twin toxicities of acids and chemicals used in the recycling processes, and in the hazardous materials used in the manufacture of the electronic product itself, need to be taken into consideration.
The multitude of complex issues outlined in this document requires different actions to be taken by different stakeholders at different levels of governance from global to local. This is particularly important for developing countries in order to enable them to create safe and secure working conditions for the women working in the informal sector on e-waste processing. The GEFT Policy Matrix proposed here helps in focusing on the development of different solutions to answer the question "who-has-to-do-what-at-which-level" It helps in laying out the different actions being undertaken, and identify the gaps and mismatches for further action.
Several challenges will also have to be addressed by the GEFT matrix, including the e-waste pathways that enable its illegal shipment to developing countries (Product tracking and customs regimes), lack of skills and awareness (education and skills development), lack of appropriate technologies for proper recycling (technology research and development), awareness of health risks (training in PPE and other issues) and involvement of criminal elements (monitoring and legal safety systems), with its attendant opportunities.
Despite the inherent informality of e-waste recycling in developing countries and the reluctance of governments to take action for a sector that is essentially "illegal", the potential of e-waste recycling (if handled properly and a safe working environment provided) to generate jobs and incomes for low-income households as well as income from sale of recycled materials, should not be ignored.
The key takeaway from this paper is the fact that the resources and tools are there, but need being brought together - in terms of the disparate actors and actions - into a coherent and coordinated policy framework, that will benefit the end-of-life recyclers, particularly women at the local level.
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