Young engineers to embark on a hackathon to tackle non-biodegradable waste

Three million tonnes of e-waste were generated in Africa in 2019 but only 0.9% was collected and recycled. The new E-waste recycling facility in Rwanda, the second-biggest in Africa, can process more than 7 000 tonnes of electrical and electronic waste each year. / PHOTO: CC BY-ND 2.0
World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development is being celebrated for the third time on 4 March. A highlight this year will be a marathon ‘hackathon’, during which teams of engineering students from universities around the world will compete over a 24-hour period to find the most ingenious solution to a simulated problem.
The virtual hackathon is being hosted by the World Federation of Engineering Organizations and has been devised by a range of partners that include UNESCO, the International Engineering Alliance and Engineers Without Borders. The best solutions will be showcased during a live streaming event.
The teams of engineering students will be able to choose between three challenges. Either they can opt to find a solution to a given problem that involves biomimicry (imitating nature), or they can take up the gauntlet of designing a climate-resilient water management system or, alternatively, an innovative, responsible way of using or limiting non-biodegradable waste.
Let’s take a closer look at the third challenge.
Plastics could account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050
The huge volume of non-biodegradable waste accumulating around the world poses a real challenge for sustainability. For instance, less than 10% of plastic waste is currently recycled. According to calculations by the World Economic Forum in 2016, plastic particles could outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050!
Since plastics are derived from oil and long-term prospects for oil production are being threatened by the growing affordability of renewables, oil companies are stepping up the production of synthetics. Plastics now make up two-thirds of demand for oil in the petrochemical sector and all of the growth in demand for oil, according to a 2020 study by Bond et al., entitled The Future’s not in Plastics: Why Plastics Demand won’t Rescue the Oil Sector; the authors estimate that, at current growth rates, plastic production could account for 20% of global oil consumption by 2050.
Despite the urgency of identifying alternatives, there were just 1 111 scientific articles on ecological alternatives to plastics in 2019, according to an original study published in the UNESCO Science Report (2021). The top ten countries for volume between 2016 and 2019 accounted for more than two-thirds (69%) of academic papers on this topic. In descending order, they were: China (442 papers), USA (328), India (272), Italy (234), Brazil (206), Spain (184), Indonesia (155), Thailand (145), Japan (143) and Germany (141).
Rwanda opens Africa’s second-largest e-waste recycling facility
One of the fastest-growing streams of non-biodegradable waste is electronic waste. Globally, 54 million metric tonnes of e-waste from computers, mobile phones and the like were discarded in 2019, according to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, an increase of almost 21% over 2014. Of this, only 17% was collected and recycled.
In Africa, the collection and recycling rate was less than 1%. The continent imports large quantities of e-waste and, in 2019, produced three million metric tonnes of its own.
In 2017, Rwanda launched the second-largest e-waste recycling facility in Africa, with support from the Rwanda Green Fund. As the UNESCO Science Report (2021) recounts, the new facility should reduce the widespread practice of informal recycling and burning of e-waste, which place people at great risk.
The facility creates a circular economy, with refurbished computers being sold or donated to schools, steel turned into steel bars for construction purposes and plastic crushed into pellets for re-use. The facility is undertaking a feasibility study with support from the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the European Union in the hope of expanding to become the first lithium battery recycling facility in Africa.
The Rwandan facility may inspire others to do the same. During Engineering Week in September 2017, a group of experts from across the continent visited the Rwandan facility to learn how it operates, as part of a UNESCO conference on electronic waste management. Leading the group was facility manager Olivier Mbera from the Rwandan Ministry of Trade and Industry.
E-waste a growing phenomenon in Africa
The volume of electronic waste is expected to swell to 75 million metric tonnes by 2030. Africa will be no exception, as its digital economy develops. Research carried out by the Groupe Spécial Mobile shows that tech incubators and accelerators in Africa are increasingly targeting tech and digital entrepreneurs. The number of these hubs surged from 314 to 744 between 2016 and 2020. About one-quarter are classified as co-working spaces, or ‘makerspaces’, where the use of 3D printers, drones and other digital technologies is commonplace.
In October 2020, the World Health Organization reported that Africa accounted for about 13% of new or adapted technologies designed to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic; more than half of these inventions concerned digital technologies.
Upstream, at the policy level, many African countries have adopted national digital strategies, according to the UNESCO Science Report (2021). Examples are Rwanda’s ICT in Education Policy (2016), the Digital Cameroon 2020 Strategic Plan (2017), Uganda’s National 4IR Strategy (2020) and the Digital Morocco 2020 strategy (2016). In October 2019, the Nigerian government created the Ministry of Communications and the Digital Economy ‘to reflect its commitment to embarking on a large-scale digital literacy programme to make Nigeria a regional hub for software engineers and services’. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), which groups 16 countries, has adopted a SADC Digital 2027 strategy.
However, only 13 African countries have adopted e-waste policies or related legislation, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor (2020), including Rwanda. These countries are among the 78 in the world to have done so.
In December 2018, UNESCO and Morocco hosted the first African forum on artificial intelligence (AI). This is being followed by a series of subregional fora. The first of these subregional fora will cover East Africa and take place in Kenya from 2 to 4 March 2022.
Between 2015 and 2019, the number of publications produced by scientists south of the Sahara on the subject of AI and robotics almost doubled from 823 to 1,539, according to the UNESCO Science Report (2021). By 2019, the subcontinent was contributing 1% of global output in this field.
A surge in research on e-waste management in sub-Saharan Africa
Despite the need to ‘green’ our current approaches to industrial waste management, this field of research is attracting much less attention than AI and robotics, observes the UNESCO Science Report (2021).
The global scientific community produced 147,806 papers on AI and robotics in 2019, almost ten times the number on ecological approaches to industrial waste management (15,881). Although scientists from sub-Saharan Africa produced just 3.3% of global output on ecological approaches to industrial waste management in 2019 (524 papers), growth in sub-Saharan Africa (+245% between 2015 and 2019) was triple the pace at the global level (+67%).
The bulk of sub-Saharan research on ecological approaches to industrial waste management stems from Nigeria (85 publications over 2012–2015 and 209 over 2016–2019) and South Africa (77/213). However, growth has been strongest in Ethiopia (4/37, +9.3%), which now produces more papers on this topic than Ghana (13/25). The subcontinent’s second-fastest growth rate goes to Mauritius (3.5%), followed by Cameroon and Mozambique (3.0%), South Africa (2.8%) and the trio made up of Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe (2.5%). As for Rwandan scientists, they produced four publications on this topic between 2012 and 2019.
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World Engineering Day