A version of this story originally appeared in Swisscontact Stories from the Field.
Waste dumps in Bolivia are overflowing. In urban areas alone, 4,300 tons of household waste are added every day. Everything winds up in rubbish dumps, from kitchen waste to discarded household items, all the way to e-waste. Poisonous materials contained in rubbish are harmful to the environment and health. In Bolivia, the idea of separating household rubbish as a prerequisite for recycling raw materials, which then helps reduce waste, is still unknown for the most part.
Bolivia’s first e-waste recycling business
In 2011, environmental auditor Jonnathan Butron Claure was part of a government expert commission on recycling. This commission determined that there should be businesses that specialize in e-waste management, but no such businesses existed in the entire country. The need to fill this market gap was obvious to Jonnathan, so in 2012 he founded REEcicla.
Fees for e-waste disposal depend on recyclability
Jonnathan’s employees take old electronic devices in exchange for a small disposal fee. The fee amount depends on the quantity of recyclable materials contained in the old device. Thus, a processor made of 98% recyclable materials costs only about 8 bolivianos (around 1 USD), while an old cathode ray tube monitor filled with toxic substances costs as much as 35 bolivianos (5 USD). Next, they disassemble the devices into their individual components. REEcicla has specialists take care of highly toxic materials. However, Jonnathan sells the recyclable parts such as copper, steel, and circuit boards. This is his company’s primary source of revenue.
Little awareness in the population
In early years, it became clear to Jonnathan that the government found that what he had to offer was highly desirable, but there was barely any demand in the population. “Companies and people understand it as a good will gesture if they dispose of their waste through a specialized company such as ours. They also believe that only the municipal government is responsible for waste disposal and not they themselves as the actual ‘polluters’” says Jonnathan. He tries to address this challenge in awareness campaigns that he conducts together with the municipal government and environmentally conscious companies.
Harnessing economic potential
He receives support from Swisscontact. Swisscontact is working together with government authorities to improve waste management, researching which waste goes where and how it can be disposed of properly or recycled. One initiative Swisscontact is undertaking is to support companies such as REEcicla that harness the economic potential of recyclables such as e-waste. Swisscontact also has been supporting the government to design a new waste management law, the essential feature of which is to introduce “extended producer legal responsibility”, or EPR.
Jonnathan’s future plans
“REEcicla was the first company of its type in Bolivia and therefore remains an example even today of recycling waste from electronics. In the future, we want to be the leading company in our country and further develop the technologies,” says Jonnathan.
Currently, REEcicla processes 20 tons of e-waste every month and depending on the volume of work, employs from 7 to 15 people from middle and poor classes. Within four years this figure is expected to rise to as much as 70 tonnes per month.
A change of attitude
Jonnathan’s goals are realistic: people are becoming increasingly aware of the urgent need to dispose of e-waste properly. Thanks to the new waste management law, demand for his company’s services will continue to increase. With REEcicla, Jonnathan has developed a business model that is at once profitable, tackles environmental problems, and also creates jobs.