Exclusive interview with Enviroserve.
The problem of electronic waste disposal has been a growing concern in the world for a while now. So much so that in 2018, the World Economic Forum in Davos saw a presentation of a report on this topic called “A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot”. According to the authors, the 2016 amount of e-waste worldwide was 44.7 million tons, which is comparable to the weight of 125 thousand Boeing 747 aircraft, or 4.5 thousand Eiffel Towers. By 2018, it had reached 48.5 million tons, and by 2050 it can grow multifold: the worst-case scenario predicted by the UN University in Vienna warns about up to 120 million tons of e-waste. But it’s not just about the amounts. The main issue is the toxic elements contained in the thrown-out gadgets. Their processing and utilization is the only way forward, and it is the primary goal of enterprises specifically created to address this problem.
The largest among them is the UAE-based Enviroserve. We talked about its achievements and prospects with Lyes Yahiaoui, the company CEO.
Lyes joined Enviroserve in 2019 and is responsible for overall strategic direction for UAE operations, divisional managers of finance and administration, operations and logistics, sales, and marketing and ITAD. Lyes holds a bachelor’s degrees in International Business & Languages and Dentistry from the University of Amsterdam.
Ecolife: Tell us about your company. How long has it been around? How did it start?
The company was founded in 2004. It started with refrigerant gases recycling. Then we moved to electronic waste (e-waste) and later to specialized waste disposal. We work with all kinds of trash – shampoos, toothpaste, expired goods. In 2009 the company moved to the DIC (Dubai Industrial City) facility, where we have been based ever since. Here, in 2019, we opened the world’s largest e-waste recycling plant, processing 40 thousand tons a year. We also have subsidiaries throughout Africa and in other parts of the world.
Ecolife: What happens to the recycled waste?
We are currently working in four major areas:
- the main one – Electronic Waste Recycling;
- Brand Protection (Special Waste);
- refrigerant gases recycling;
- IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) and refurbishment – disassembling laptops, desktops, and smartphones, deleting data from them, and returning devices to the market.
Correspondingly, we have four main divisions.
The first is working with contaminated refrigerant gases. We clean them and put them back into circulation, into the economy, for customers’ needs. The client simply gives us the gases, and then, after recycling, we either sell them to other companies or give them back.
The second division deals with technology – desktops, laptops, telephones, IT equipment. We wipe confidential data from hard drives in the process.
The third division is specialized waste, which we mainly destroy. It’s expired goods, overstock, old garment. We accept orders for overstock market items disposal daily. Especially during the coronavirus period, many companies closed and had to dispose of goods.
The fourth division deals with the complete elimination of e-waste, depending on the material.
Our activity boils down to either repairing equipment and selling it or returning the gadgets to their owners.
The solution depends on the client company that gives us the devices. Some want us to dispose of them, others – to repair and sell, the third group – to donate them to charity.
Ecolife: Who are some of your major clients?
One of our main suppliers is Apple; we process their e-waste. We work with Etihad Airways and the world’s largest corporations – HP, IBM, Siemens, Bosh – any company you can imagine.
We work with government agencies in the UAE and other countries. In particular, with the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MoCCaE). We constantly negotiate the measures and procedures that need to be implemented with them. Once a week, we hold discussions about the world’s regulation trends, about federal and local laws of the UAE.
We also keep in touch with the Dubai Municipality and other municipalities. They see the importance of setting up the regulations. Sometimes it takes a while to implement new laws; other times, progress happens very quickly.
Cooperation with other Gulf countries differs from state to state because of unique sets of regulations. We adapt to distinct rules of each country, but of course, we work primarily within the UAE framework, as it is our home. Our relationship with the UAE authorities is also the most productive.
Outside the Emirates, some governments are very active in supporting us regarding laws and regulations. Others do not yet see the importance of waste management.
There are regions where e-waste reaches us quickly and more efficiently because of effective regulations. In others, there is no regulation, only a traditional market. In some countries, our partners buy e-waste. In others, with reasonable controls, they can get it free of charge. And there are several countries with stringent laws that can supply us with a lot of e-waste and pay for it. Depending on the country, our methods may differ.
In Africa, we work with Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Kenya, Djibouti. In other regions – with Lebanon, Georgia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and other GCC countries; we are starting to work with Jordan.
In Africa, with its traditional market, handling e-waste is not easy, but not too difficult either. It is a large continent, and slowly but surely we are building a network of subsidiaries and local offices there.
Ecolife: Let’s get back to the actual work you do. How is it organized? What technologies do you use?
Most processes are now automated, so we only need a limited number of employees. We work a lot with computer technology that reduces the required amount of human labor. For example, we use machines with cameras and optical segregation, magnetic segregation, and other features instead of people. So we are less and less dependent on the human factor, mainly to monitor the process. We want to keep it sustainable as well because the more human resources we use, the slower and more expensive the process becomes. And we prefer to do everything both cheap and efficient.
All technologies for effective recycling have already been invented; you only need the knowledge to work with them. We have some artificial intelligence technology implemented at our factory. AI categorizes waste by color, weight, and other criteria. The current process – AI combined with human supervision – is more than 98% effective in separating and recycling waste.
Ecolife: To what extent can you revive old tech?
We determine which devices are salvageable when they get to us. If the gadget is not broken and looks well, we send it to the items department. There it gets connected to the software – we don’t do manual checks. The program assesses whether the device is reparable. If the answer is “yes”, we restore it; otherwise, it is sent to e-waste.
The oldest computers we repaired were made in 2010. There is a market for those PCs too, some companies outside the UAE can send them to Africa, Afghanistan, and other countries. But if you can’t install the software on the hardware, that’s the end of the story. In a word, the market will accept even 1995 equipment if we can put it in back together.
I would especially like to talk about used batteries. They come in many types – alkaline, laptop batteries, etc., and the solutions are different for each. Many can be recycled in the UAE at the special recycling facilities we work with. Other batteries can be processed, refurbished, and used again. There are also dangerous batteries that cannot be recycled in the UAE, so we send them to specialized plants in Europe. We are in the process of discussing the creation of a processing facility that will handle those types of batteries as well.
Ecolife: As I understand, you put a lot of emphasis on educational work.
Yes, we have a lot of marketing and awareness programs, school activities for children. We come to schools and teach students what e-waste recycling, gases recycling, and recycling in general are. We coordinate with different brands in this area. We also have a business education platform, where we work with a lot of facility management companies. We also involve households. We can be seen on TV, Facebook, and other social networks, so we have our marketing plan. Is that enough? Of course not. There is always more to be done. We, along with other companies, must work on people’s consciousness in regards to e-waste.
Ecolife: How do you see the future of e-waste business?
Hopefully, there will be more regulatory legislation worldwide, in the GCC region and Africa. We could increase the capacity from 5-7% to 20-50%. With more regulation and higher awareness, our business will grow. So I really hope it is the case. There is more than enough waste in the world. Our recycling plant is 100% ready to operate for the next 20 years, easily. Therefore, our job is on two fronts – awareness and regulation. It will be a blessing for the environment as there will be less and less e-waste produced. In a few years, I hope all e-waste will be recycled and re-used by the industry. Similar to how, for example, we currently supply raw materials to companies that make smartphones, so they won’t have to extract these materials from Mother Earth.
Ecolife: Tell us about roadmap for the company going forward.
We have a joint plan with the UAE government for when we will achieve specific goals. In July, the MoCCaE adopted a new e-waste law at the federal level. It should now be reviewed in the Emirates and implemented on the ground. We’re working on it. The implementation of the federal law will take from a month to a year – we don’t know for sure yet. More regulations will follow, and the market can quickly expand from handling a small amount of waste to a quite large one.