Belgian organisations Ovam, the public waste agency of Flanders, and Recupel, a non-profit association for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), believe it is important to offer young people opportunities to develop their potential. They want to give them a voice in the current environment debate.
That is why they teamed up to invite 15 international students from different educational backgrounds for a three-day boot camp called the E-Loop Challenge at the 2019 World Resources Forum (WRF). With the expertise available at the WRF, Recupel and Ovam, the students had a solid foundation to face the challenge head on and try to eliminate electrical and electronic equipment from entering the waste stream.
The group was split up into three teams of five, and each team had to design a product or idea to either reuse, recycle or collect WEEE. The students’ solutions were pitched during the closing session of the event to an audience of circular economy enthusiasts from all corners of society: scientists, policy-makers, business leaders and beyond.
All three solutions were unanimously applauded by the audience. But it does not stop there: both Ovam and Recupel are committed to take the students’ solutions to the next level.
From meeting Queen Mathilde of Belgium, who visited the forum in her capacity as UN sustainable development goals advocate, to presenting their solutions during the plenary session in front of around 500 experts, the students had an enriching experience at the WRF. The intellectual cross-fertilisation between students with different areas of expertise was an eye-opener and a good example of how interdisciplinary collaboration can benefit the environment.
Jan Verheyen is head of press and communications at Ovam and Annelies Evens is marketing and communications officer from Recupel
MRW asked five of the students what solution they thought would help to prevent, eradicate or recycle WEEE; why this would work; and what key things they learned from attending the World Resources Forum
Name: Amel Touahria
Specialism: Computer engineering
Solution: Computer engineering is the tool that we use to solve all kinds of problems. The impact of technology is huge – think about how social media affects people and changes their lives completely.
If we come back to the environmental issue, we see that the trend for creating smart cities and smart systems to facilitate the lives of citizens is worldwide. Technology is the tool. It is also the solution for the WEEE issue. That is why we have to encourage children to enter the science, technology, engineering and maths field. Everybody has to be open-minded towards technology.
WEEE is not going to stop but we have to think about alternatives. How can we use WEEE to make more valuable things, using the components of old washing machines to design brand new things? Products have to be designed with modularity, to facilitate the recycling of components.
There are already a lot of companies interested in using or discovering new ideas for how to reuse WEEE. This is the road we are taking, so they will have to follow.
We are working on a project in which we make technology kits with used components. If we mention the brand of these components (Apple, Samsung and others) then this could be good publicity for them and an incentive to make more durable products. They will care more about environmental issues and certificates such as ISO14000.
Key learnings: I have a background in computer engineering and worked on several smart city and smart waste projects before, but I have never tackled the WEEE issue.
Before I came here I had no idea about the challenges and the details of the circular economy. But, within two or three sessions from our mentors, it was easy to understand the issue. Being from different backgrounds (environment, law, policy and so on), my fellow students really helped to broaden my view.
yu ching tan
Name: Yu Ching Tan
Specialism: Law (UK); digital, new technology and public policy (Paris); public management & international relations (Tokyo)
Solution: The best thing to do is give people insight into how they can change their behaviour. We need to get people to live in a more sustainable manner. The problem is not the lack of solutions but the lack of participation. Today, the climate issue is gaining momentum. The question is: how do we ride that wave and let people change their behaviour according to the things they believe in?
Key learnings: Young people have to take matters into their own hands. What the world has to do is give us the resources and let us change the world.
Name: Salma Kadry
Specialism: Global studies (Ghent)
Solution: There are multiple solutions. One problem that we face is the lack of a system that could connect consumers, producers and recyclers. We need an efficient system that could co-ordinate communication between those parties. There is a need for awareness: we tend to think about things that are in front of us, but do not know the story behind them or what happens when we throw them away.
Raising awareness is crucial so that people can make better choices. From the producer side, it a capitalist economy that is money-driven, so it is important that we try to find ways to incentivise producers to rethink their model and become more sustainable.
If consumers are more aware of the damage that components of WEEE can possibly cause, they might change their behaviour. It’s a process that cannot be driven by one entity but the consumer has most of the power. If consumers make different choices – because of their awareness of the negative impact – they will force producers to readjust to this new market or create a new one. The problem differs, however, from one country to another.
Key learnings: This forum allowed me to dig deeper into the WEEE problem. All participants of the E-Loop Challenge came from different backgrounds – for example, computer science, economics, law, engineering – so I was able to understand the problem in different ways and do more in-depth analysis rather than know the surface of the problem.
There are many aspects that need to be taken into account to address the WEEE problem.
poornima deshanjali sapugoda
Name: Poornima Deshanjali Sapugoda
From: Sri Lanka
Specialism: Science and green technology
Solution: According to my country’s scenario, the main problem is that people do not know about WEEE pollution. Back home, I help to do awareness programmes for the public and schools. I think that Asia has to establish [better] recycling centres and collection systems.
A lot of people switch iPhones when a new version comes out. iPhone2 – they throw away the iPhone1. iPhone 3 – they throw away the iPhone2. Extended producer responsibility (EPR), where all environmental costs associated with the product are added to the price of that product, is also a very important concept to further develop. EPR should be introduced by more countries all over the world.
Sri Lanka has a WEEE crisis, partly because people never learned about what natural resources are, how limited they are and how to reuse or recycle them. We have to work towards a circular economy.
Key learnings: This was my first visit to Europe, and the E-Loop Challenge was a valuable and important opportunity for me. I got to meet a lot of students with different backgrounds, who helped me better understand all aspects of the problem.
We have to find solutions to climate change, the most important problem in the world – not only for us, but for future generations.
Name: Marios Christodoulidis
From: Cyprus (Limassol), living in Greece
Specialism: Computer engineering
Solution: First, we have to raise general awareness. People are really underestimating the damage that is being done to the environment because of pollution, contamination of water, and so on. We need to raise scientific awareness. People don’t know what is contained inside electronic appliances, which toxic materials are in them or what damage chemicals could cause.
We need to give people incentives to stop throwing away WEEE. Lending devices to each other, recycling and, most of all, informing people on how to maintain their devices better. If you teach people how to better maintain their devices (save their battery, not break them so easily, use smartphones more wisely and so on) they would not need a new one so soon.
Also, we need to focus more on recycling. Did you know that in Flanders and Belgium, only around half of household WEEE gets collected separately and recycled? This is a ‘good’ example, so imagine what is happening in other countries!
Key learnings: I learned many things about the politics of recycling and the general approach of politicians and organisations towards WEEE. I also learned a lot about the economics of recycling and how profitable it is as a business. I also exchanged opinions with experts in the field and engineers, who think about the technical aspects of WEEE.