Graham Sustainability Institute

Collaborating to Solve the Global E-Waste Challenge

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Thai village e-waste recovery workers

In many Thai villages, living spaces extend from indoor sleeping areas to outdoor porch-like areas where socializing and cooking occur. As part of Thailand’s emerging e-waste recycling industry, some families also use this outdoor space as a work area to store and disassemble electronic waste (e-waste) and recycle the materials inside them, like copper. Work areas are piled high with old televisions, electric fans, and all manner of other cast-off e-waste waiting to be repurposed or recycled. The economic potential of the industry is attractive to many community members, but unfortunately e-waste often contains toxic and dangerous components that can lead to high-risk work environments and negative health and socioecological impacts.

During the summer of 2018, Dr. Kowit Nambunmee, Assistant Professor at Mae Fah Luang University, along with Aubrey Arain, a PhD student at the University of Michigan’s (U-M) School of Public Health (SPH) and others, worked to develop a pilot project aimed at helping e-waste recyclers create and manage safer workspaces. 

The idea for the pilot came out of a workshop on e-waste solutions, during which researchers and experts came together to share information and develop solutions to mitigate risks in the e-waste industry for workers, communities, and environments. The workshop was a key milestone for a project on e-waste initiated and led by Dr. Rick Neitzel, an Associate Professor at SPH, and primarily supported by U-M’s Graham Sustainability Institute.

Over the past two years, Neitzel gathered together experts, researchers, and students from Chile, Thailand, and U-M to study the e-waste industry in different countries and propose solutions that mitigate its harmful impacts while promoting workers’ health and livelihoods. As the project moves into its third year, it has already succeeded in affecting the e-waste discussion, connecting stakeholders with multiple perspectives on the issue, and getting the ball rolling on a number of potential solutions.

Making Collaboration Work

Part of making sure a large collaboration like the e-waste project runs smoothly is assuring all collaborators that the project is a true partnership, Neitzel says. This means offering support to on-the-ground researchers, developing and sticking to a shared vision, establishing regular (and bilingual) communication pathways, and respecting local cultures.

Aside from all the within-project challenges, a major obstacle for cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural projects is funding them. This is particularly true when the scope is so big; most funders would want a group of researchers to focus in on a small part of the problem, says Neitzel, rather than trying to address the larger challenge from multiple angles.

But it is the broad scope of the project that Neitzel believes is most valuable. By examining the issue holistically with multiple disciplinary and cultural perspectives in the room, ideas emerge on what the key issues are and how best to address them, allowing actionable e-waste solutions to form. The Graham Sustainability Institute shares that view. The Institute specializes in catalyzing and supporting research on complex sustainability challenges that require collaboration among diverse disciplines and stakeholders.  The Institute provided both financial and outreach support, including assistance developing resources and making connections to enhance the project’s impact.  

Working Toward Solutions

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From the start, Neitzel planned to bring his research team together with other global experts for a workshop. His goal, however, was to move beyond the typical academic conference and provide a venue for generating collaborative solutions. To help him realize this, the Institute provided communications support and connected Neitzel’s team with a facilitation and process design team that had a track record of smoothing the challenging path between research and action.

The facilitation team was part of SPH’s Innovation Studio, which specialized in helping researchers move their insights out of the lab and into the real world. Led by Ann Verhey-Henke, the goal of the process is to “provide a unique, clear structure to help manage cross-disciplinary boundaries.” According to both feedback surveys and personal accounts, this method was a success. “[The workshop] was really different,” says specialist Uca Silva, one of Neitzel’s Chilean team members, a workshop participant, and Executive Director of the Platform RELAC. Going beyond a traditional professional workshop where people primarily present their work, this methodology enabled a second level where participants interacted with each other, formed ideas together, and shared knowledge based on unique regional experiences. Violeta Nikolova, a workshop participant from the United Nations University, praised the facilitation and moderation strategies of the organizing teams, writing, “I appreciate the importance placed on inclusion, tolerance and acceptance of various points of view. In such a diverse group, this sometimes is a challenge, but the workshop made the best out of the abundance of viewpoints and individual experiences shared.”

The workshop resulted in a set of collaboratively designed, actionable next steps. Nambunmee’s pilot project is just one of the workshop outcomes. Another is an engineering project led by U-M’s Dr. Jesse Austin-Breneman, an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Global Design Laboratory, along with Suzanne Chou, a PhD student in U-M’s department of Mechanical Engineering. The project is “developing fixturing solutions for motor dismantling to help with speed and efficiency, ergonomics, and debris capture during this common task,” writes Chou. Addressing efficiency is important to ensure workers can maintain or improve their financial benefits, and to increase the likelihood the solution is adopted. The team aims to create prototypes to facilitate discussions and product co-creation with e-waste workers.

Read more about the collaborative approaches used in the workshop.

Changing the E-waste Cycle

Chilean E-waste worker with noise monitor

Neitzel is enthusiastic about continuing to keep participants connected post-workshop. The overall e-waste project will have a combination of outcomes aimed at both e-waste workers and policy makers. “I see the project as having multiple levels of potential audiences,” says Neitzel. He contends the e-waste workers are the ones around whom outcomes must revolve. If they don’t see the value of the project recommendations or the value of changing how things are done, then no change will occur. “It may be that our role [as academics] is as a catalyst,” he explains, with long-term support of e-waste recycling communities coming from local governments.

 At the same time, some project outcomes focus on the policy level due to unique sociopolitical contexts among different countries. For instance in Chile, until now “the focus in the informal [e-waste] sector is on management, not how health is affected by working in informal conditions,” says Silva. The work of the project in Chile has helped bring the issue of e-waste worker health into the Latin American policy conversation, she says. “We put the issue [of e-waste worker health] to the Chilean government. They may not take it up but they know; they have a set of facts.” 

Given the world’s rising consumption of electronics and the increasing challenge of dealing with the resulting waste, solutions are necessary. “It is clear that academic research and roundtable discussions at the multinational level is not enough,” writes Nikolova. “Empowering the e-waste worker locally and enabling entrepreneurship, while keeping governments and large corporations in check for fulfilling their commitments, is what is needed. The [e-waste] workshop was conducted in the same spirit.”

To learn more, visit the project webpage.