Utility Vs. Environment: Sri Lanka’s Policy Outlook on Managing “E-Waste”

Special Feature Article Marking World Environment Day – June 5th


The United States, European Union (EU), and China claim to be the biggest producers of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). During the year 2011, more than 34 million TVs, 24 million PCs, and 139 million portable communication devices – including mobile phones, were produced and sold in the market. Over the past 5 years, United States reported a growth of 50% in WEEE generation. In the year 2011, the EU produced 3.8 billion electrical and electronic units, including 265 million computers, 254 million in-home consumer electronic appliances, and 197 million consumer appliances. Adding to the equation, China sold approximately 20 million refrigerators, 48 million TVs, and nearly 40 million personal computers. Electrical and electronic equipment was invented to improve efficiency and to make the lives of users easier. In developing countries, this ease and efficiency used to be limited to the higher income classes, because technology remained an expensive investment. However, over the years, manufacturers have made tremendous gains in making these items affordable for the average consumer in these countries as well and, as a result, developing countries have also increased their consumption of WEEE items.

In the process of improving the quality of life, the consumption of electrical and electronic equipment will also increase rapidly. However, at the same time, the lifespan of these consumer items will decrease as new items will come to the market almost every day. Therefore, as the production of WEEE is high, disposal of WEEE waste is one of the biggest waste disposal issues of the 21st century. At the same time, there is an argument that developing countries are the destinations, or rather, dump sites for most of the developed world WEEE. For developing countries like Sri Lanka, this is a wake up call, and it is the right time to take a closer look at deriving strategies and policies to tackle this emerging issue. This article urges the importance of deriving successful strategies and policies for the management of electrical and electronic waste, while highlighting the successful efforts of the Government of Sri Lanka, and the private sector.


Why is WEEE a Problem?


The problem of WEEE can be categorized as an environmental problem, social problem, as well as an economic problem. First of all, it is an environment problem. WEEE contains materials that can generate threats to the environment, especially materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium, as well as nickel, beryllium, and zinc that is commonly found in circuit boards. These materials can cause serious damage to the environment, the ecosystem, as well as the health of humans who associate with these products At this point, WEEE becomes a social problem creating negative social externality to the society in addition to the negative externality it had already created to the environment. Therefore, the disposal of WEEE is quite significant and consequently involves technology and money, creating a negative economic externality. As suggested by the United Nations University, 20-50 billon tonnes of WEEE are being produced annually around the world and it is very important that proper recycling and disposal techniques are developed to safeguard the environment and those who associate with it.


Are Developing Countries Victimized?


As mentioned earlier, there is a significant argument among scholars that the developing countries are being used as dump sites for the WEEE of developed countries. Research has proved this to be true; however, one has to remember that the disposal of WEEE is a global business. It has become an entrepreneurial activity for some developing countries. Therefore, we have to admit to the fact that the developed world does not forcefully send its WEEE to developing countries, rather it happens as part of a negotiated business transaction. At this point, one would like to raise a question. Who should we blame; the developed world or the developing world, or are both responsible?


Since WEEE is important in terms of the environment, society, and the economy, countries that trade in WEEE have rules and regulations established. A country which collects WEEE cannot simply export; they have to comply with the rules and regulations of the Basal Convention. In addition to the Basal Convention, countries or rather regions, especially in the EU have established their own guidelines on what is to be exported or imported in terms of WEEE. To address who is to be blamed and to see whether the developing countries are victimized, we need to take a closer look at this.


One way to look at this is the increased demand for second hand electrical and electronic equipment from the developing world. Since the prices of some new electrical and electronic items are not affordable for developing countries, they tend to favour the used ones. This has created a way for the developed world to send across the WEEE in terms of used items to the developing world. At the onset, this is a viable business option as well as an opportunity to the consumers. However, within several years all this electronic and electrical items will become the “WEEE of the developing world”.


Another way to look at it is to evaluate the existing regulatory mechanisms, globally, regionally, and on a country specific level. It is not the intention of this article to look at it in great depth at this point; however, I am not discounting the fact that loopholes in regulatory mechanism could be a potential candidate that allows developed countries to exploit the developing countries.


Therefore, to answer the argument built up in this section, it is “YES”, developing countries have become victimized. The fault lies greatly with the socio-economic situation of the developing countries themselves, where the demand for second-hand products lies. At the same time, developed countries should not exploit the developing countries just because they can afford to do so. We have to look at WEEE as a global issue. Rather than passing the problem to another party via economic instruments, collective ethical and sustainable actions are needed.


Global Best Management Practices in Battling WEEE


Global best management practices are country or region specific. They largely depend on the available technology, the affordability of the technology, the commitment of the regulatory bodies of the countries, and the people’s willingness to participate in the management of WEEE. In a more process oriented view, management of WEEE would cover the steps of collection, dissemination, recovery and reuse, and ultimate disposal. With the available technology and money, most developed countries have been able to set up large operations managing WEEE, and addressing the issues of shelf-life of WEEE. However, the mechanisms adopted by the developing countries are centred on the “public private partnerships (PPP)”and voluntary mechanisms.


In this aspect, Sri Lanka is increasingly pulling ahead of the flock. A national policy on WEEE waste management has already been drafted and plenty of public private partnerships have been established to manage the WEEE waste in a sustainable way. The Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy and the Central Environment Authority (CEA) are heading the efforts as policy makers and enforcers of the law.


Sri Lanka’s Strategy to Fight WEEE Issues


In addition to achieving a draft policy for WEEE management, the next best thing that Sri Lanka engaged in was the “Electronic Waste Management Project”. Implemented under the purview of the CEA, this project has been able to sign MOUs with 14 partner organizations in an effort to manage the WEEE in Sri Lanka. The partner organizations comprised of telecommunications industry (Telecom, Mobitel, Dialog, Etisalat, Hutch, and Lanka Bell), home appliances industry (Singer and Abans), office appliances industry (Metropolitan, E-Wis, Virtusa, and ABC Trade & Investments), and service providers (Geo Cycle and Green Link).


At the moment, Sri Lanka’s WEEE comprises of mobile phones and their accessories, TVs, radios and their accessories and other consumer goods such as refrigerators, ovens, washing machines and bulbs. I stressed the point that developing countries are mainly looking to PPPs to manage their WEEE. In line with this argument, the partner companies with the CEA have initiated many programmes that require PPP and the voluntary participation of the consumers. While acknowledging the brilliant efforts by all these entities, my attempt below is to bring about two examples, just to make the point clear that Sri Lanka is ahead of the flock.


Example (1): Softlogic PLC together with Think Green, which is an exporter of WEEE approved by the CEA, has taken steps to implement environmentally friendly WEEE waste disposal mechanisms. The products under consideration here are mobile phones and their accessories, and they are being collected at the designated services centres of the Soft Logic PLC. There are 140 service points all around the country and the first batch of waste was estimated at 483kgs. In addition, these organizations are increasingly involved in community awareness campaigns which motivate the consumers to participate in the programmes effectively.


Example (2): Singer Sri Lanka together with the CEA implemented the “National Cooperate WEEE Management Initiative”. Singer Sri Lanka was the first to collect WEEE waste in Sri Lanka, and now has collected over 60 tonnes since its involvement. They also conduct public awareness campaigns to attract more consumers to their activities. Singer does these mainly through its nationwide outlets.


Example (3): With initiatives to save electricity, especially through the use of energy saving bulbs, Sri Lanka recorded a high demand for CFL bulbs. As suggested by CEA, over a million of CFL bulbs are being used in Sri Lanka every month. Higher demand for consumption has resulted in a higher disposal rate. Identifying this opportunity, Orange Plc in collaboration with Nordic Recycling AB of Sweden, has established South Asia’s first ever CFL and fluorescent bulb recycling plant. This plant is located in Pitipana, Rideemulla, in Homagama South. It holds the capacity to recycle up to 30million bulbs per year.


Example (4): A pioneering environmental programme is being implemented under the purview of the CEA in collaboration with a network of 5000 schools in Sri Lanka. This programme will enable access for students to actively participate in managing WEEE at a school level. This has proven to be a very effective mechanism, since it collects a lot of WEEE from households through children, while creating awareness among children and parents on the importance of managing WEEE.


Sri Lanka, as mentioned earlier, has its WEEE management policy at the draft stage. While most of the ground rules in the policy are common to other policies in developing countries, one significant aspect is the defining protocols for resource mobilization. The policy has suggested looking in to ways of applying the ‘polluter pays principle’ to generate revenue from efficient and effective WEEE waste management, and defining suitable financial instruments to generate revenue and promote efficient use. While these are market instruments that need to be carefully investigated and researched before implementing on a full scale, evidence suggest that some companies are already experimenting with some of these concepts.


There are commercial companies such as Singer Sri Lanka and Abans that promote ‘buy-back’ programmes, where customers can give away their old electrical and electronic items and get discounts to buy new ones. CEA has organized several WEEE waste drop-off events where customers can hand over their used WEEE items to the seller/producer. In addition, there are WEEE waste collectors and exporters who are registered under CEA, who go to the customer directly and buy back the WEEE waste. One of the main features of the WEEE policy that is of interest is the identification of the significance of PPP. In public policy literature, PPP has been identified as one of the most sustainable ways of tackling social, economic, and environmental problems. Inclusion of such mechanisms in to the policy is a positive indicator that shows Sri Lanka is on the right track.




The activities that private organizations engage in managing WEEE waste in Sri Lanka could be largely classified under Extender Producer Responsibility (EPR) or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of those particular organizations. Therefore, while market principles such as “polluter pays principle” are not implemented in Sri Lanka yet with respect to WEEE waste management, the existing mechanisms are a start. In conclusion, it can be stated that Sri Lanka is making significant progress in dealing with WEEE management, yet however, in the long run, better market mechanisms need to be established to motivate the consumers to participate in WEEE management effectively. At the moment, WEEE waste management in Sri Lanka is based on voluntary actions, and it is time to consider the establishment of compensation mechanisms to make the WEEE management process more mainstream.


On a final note, let me reflect upon the argument that I have presented up to now. WEEE is increasingly becoming a global issue. The challenge is far greater to the developing world and Sri Lanka is not an exception. Developing countries are in a crisis, in terms of their consumer demands for the used products, as well as the regulation on WEEE export and import. Therefore, Sri Lanka needs to be very proactive. A constant assessment on how we are doing is very essential. However, on a country level, Sri Lanka is far ahead than most developing countries, especially in attracting consumers to take part in voluntary WEEE management programmes, and most importantly, building public private partnerships to help tackle the issue.



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