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Trash to treasure: how the Gulf is tackling e-waste

Electronic waste disposal site Oriental Image via Reuters Connect
Many electronic devices thrown out by consumers owners contain valuable metals and other materials
  • Global electronic waste on path to 74m tonnes a year
  • ‘Circular economy’ promotes reuse and recycling
  • UAE startups aim to promote circularity

Looking to buy a new smartphone? What are you going to do with your old one?

Consumer appetites for the latest phones, tablets and wearables are making electronics the fastest-growing category of waste in the world. 

The amount of electronic waste in landfills worldwide is forecast to reach 74 million tonnes a year by 2030, according to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Forum. But there is an alternative to this “take-make-waste” model.  

Businesses are adopting circular economy methods to keep gadgets, batteries and cables – plus the valuable metals and other materials they contain – out of rubbish dumps by reusing, refurbishing or recycling them instead.

“People buy, upgrade and discard their smartphones at an unprecedented rate, leading to a growing mountain of electronic waste,” says Khalid Saiduddin, founding partner and CEO of Zension Technologies.

Zension, based in Dubai, is developing a subscription model for consumer tech. Research shows that the average lifespan of a smartphone is three years, but it could be used for four to seven years or longer.

Through the model Zension is developing, subscribers can upgrade to a newer model while their old device is repaired and resold. It has been testing a pilot of this model for 18 months and it said results, in terms of customer retention, were ‘extremly positive’.

Khalid Saiduddin Zension CEOZension
‘Businesses and consumers play a crucial role in driving the transition,’ says Zension CEO Khalid Saiduddin

Extending the lifespan of all smartphones in the world by just one year could save around 20 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually by 2030, according to the Strategy Paper for Circular Economy: Mobile Devices report from mobile industry body GSMA. That is equivalent to taking more than 4.5 million cars off the road.

“Businesses and consumers play a crucial role in driving the transition to a circular economy and mitigate the depletion of natural resources,” says Saiduddin.

Governments are playing a part too. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have all introduced national strategies on the issue in recent years.

In the Mena region, 20 percent of consumers show a willingness to pay up to 20 percent more for products that bear a lower carbon footprint and are manufactured by companies with ethical practices, according to PwC’s Global Consumer Insights Survey.  

Hamza Iraqui, co-founder of Revibe, a UAE refurbished electronics startup, says: “Rising environmental consciousness and sustainability concerns among consumers have driven demand for eco-friendly products and services.  

“Shoppers increasingly favour products with longer lifespans, recyclability and reduced environmental impact. This shift has led to a surge in demand for refurbished and upcycled items.”

However, many gaps still exist, says Rana Hajirasouli, founder of the UAE-based platform The Surpluss, a UAE startup that works with businesses so one company’s waste can be another’s resource.

“The perceived risk is high, but smaller players are understanding that it’s financially viable and the big actors need to be more ambitious,” she says. “To encourage adoption, we need to increase business appetite and bring awareness of the benefits.”

Zension aims to raise awareness about circular economy solutions via a series of marketing campaigns.

Saiduddin says: “Retailers and businesses in the UAE are responding by incorporating sustainable practices into their operations, including product design, recycling and waste reduction efforts.”

According to Iraqui, the fact that second-hand or refurbished electronics are cheaper isn’t hurting either.

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