African countries can build and grow their scrap metal industry through reuse and recycling as a means of generating revenue.
Africa and the global community, as a collective, have a shared commitment to advocating for the continued industrialization of the continent. This shared resolve was evident in the theme at the 2022 African Union (AU) Summit on Industrialization and Economic Diversification, held in Niamey, Niger. As momentum in industrialization efforts picks up pace, the collective endeavour to mobilize resources will become increasingly apparent on the continent. Resource mobilization will inevitably lead to waste generation, which can exacerbate the unfortunate situation that is Africa being exploited as a dumping ground for waste by the West, mainly electronic waste (e-waste), which often includes scrap metal components.
Scrap metal waste generation is prevalent worldwide, but upon meticulous sorting and processing, such waste can be effectively harnessed as a valuable resource that will contribute to economic development. Numerous scrap metal junk yards exist across many African countries, serving as storage grounds for a myriad of condemned e-waste items.
Agbogbloshie, a slum in Accra, Ghana, is renowned for being the world’s largest e-waste dumpsite. In Nigeria, scrap metal dealers and scavengers frequently survey and rummage through the Olusosun dumpsite in Ojota. The Dandora waste disposal dumpsite in Nairobi is Kenya’s largest waste dumping site, and pickers frequent it in search of scrap metal, which they can resell. An open metal dump is situated around Benoni, South Africa, a historic gold mining site, where women collect scrap metal for a living. Activities taking place at these dumpsites, whether authorized or not, are described by some scavengers as a lucrative means for generating income.
The value of discarded items in scrap metal junk yards is often underestimated by people who maybe lack knowledge about metal recycling. To get a better context of the industry, one must understand what comprises scrap metal and why it is highly sought after by scavengers. Scrap metal describes unwanted metals or metal-containing materials and products that have been discarded but can be recycled and reused in various applications.
There are two categories of scrap metal: ferrous metals and non-ferrous metals. Ferrous metals are iron-containing metals; steel and iron belong to this class of scrap metals. Magnetic property differentiates ferrous metals from non-ferrous ones, with the latter lacking this property. Metals such as brass, copper, zinc, aluminium, lead, tin, nickel, and even precious metals like gold and silver belong to the non-ferrous category of scrap metals.
Commonly discarded items from which scrap metal can be salvaged include disassembled computers, laptops, and smartphones which contain gold, aluminium and copper in their components, worn-out household appliances like toasters, kitchen stoves, fridges, kettles, air conditioners, washing machines, and parts of ramshackle vehicles like engines, wheels and car bodies. In addition, obsolete machinery and industrial equipment are salvageable scrap metal. The non-ferrous class of scrap metal particularly holds high market value and serves as an excellent source of secondary raw material in the smelting industry for producing new metals. Because such metals do not contain iron, they are corrosion-resistant and are suitable for reuse in many applications. Ferrous metal waste, on the other hand, is susceptible to rust and often less valuable when compared to non-ferrous metal waste. However, it still maintains a market presence due to the ubiquity and widespread use of metals like steel.
Legal frameworks governing the scrap metal industry vary across regions and countries. Scrap metal businesses are often regulated by policies and laws to ensure proper and responsible handling, disposal, transportation, and conservation of the environment. Such laws are instituted to address public safety concerns, health hazards, and potentially detrimental effects on the environment. The scrap industry can be well organized in its operations when laws are enforced. However, in some places, the informal sector is the dominating workforce, where scavengers and waste pickers do not possess the required operating licenses and infrastructure for conducting activities in the sector.
Undoubtedly, the scrap metal recycling industry is a thriving multi-billion dollar sector which continues to grow rapidly year on year. Some of the most traded scrap metals in the world, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC) are iron, copper and aluminium, with total trade values of $56.6 billion, $ 33 billion, and $19.6 billion respectively (2021). Scrap iron represented 0.27% of total world trade, whereas scrap copper accounted for 0.16%, and scrap aluminium accounted for 0.093% according to the data analysis. The top destination for imported scrap iron globally was Turkey holding 18.2% of global scrap iron imports while China was the leading destination for global imported scrap copper, representing 26.7% of imports. India held the top position for imports of scrap aluminium globally, accounting for 15% of such imports.
In Africa, Libya emerged as the top exporter of scrap iron, representing 47.4% of scrap iron exports on the continent, while Egypt was the leading importer accounting for 86.9% of imports. The OEC data also indicates that scrap copper is highly sought after by resellers in countries like Morroco, Libya, Tunisia, Nigeria, Ghana, and Togo, with relatively close export value percentages. South Africa was by far the top importer of scrap copper in Africa, accounting for a staggering 92.2% of imports of scrap copper. The data on scrap aluminium revealed Morocco, South Africa, and Libya as the top exporters in Africa, while Mauritius, South Africa, and Egypt were the highest importers. These figures provide valuable insight into global trade dynamics and the trade patterns of scrap iron, copper, and aluminium in Africa, highlighting regions driving the export and import market for such scrap metals.
When carried out properly, scrap metal recycling offers great benefits for all its stakeholders. Many people, especially those belonging to the informal sector rely heavily on the scrap metal industry for their livelihood. The financial gains can be substantially high, as reported by some individuals who have been in the business for many years. Scrap metal recycling rids landfills of hazardous waste and reduces dumpsite overcapacity. Industries also directly benefit from scrap metal recycling by way of reduced production costs when some of these scrap metals are introduced as secondary raw materials in manufacturing processes.
Additionally, energy consumption during production is reduced when reusing scrap metals as secondary raw material instead of solely using virgin raw material. It is reported that recycling steel and tin cans can save between 60 and 74 per cent of the energy required to produce them when using virgin raw material while recycling a single aluminium can generate just enough energy to power a TV for two hours.
Like any industry, however, some challenges arise in the scrap metal recycling sector, often due to inadequate or nonexistent regulations governing the business. Scavengers constantly put themselves and others in potential danger. The nature of the work exposes them to potential physical injuries like being cut or pierced by sharp objects. They are also exposed to toxic chemical waste which can be mixed with scrap metal waste. Also, sorting out scrap copper sometimes involves burning, releasing fumes into the atmosphere which pollute the air and pose health risks to workers and nearby residents. Water bodies can also be polluted if disposal of scrap metal is not properly carried out, or if there is leakage of chemical waste from scrap metals into nearby water bodies.
Another alarming concern is increased vandalism targeting public property with the intent to access metals for illegal trade. Some countries have imposed bans on the export of scrap metals to combat theft and illegal sale of state infrastructure. This causes states to lose millions of dollars in infrastructure damages.
In June 2023, South Africa extended a six-month ban that had been placed on scrap metal exports to curb theft and illegal export of copper in particular. Kenya had also put a ban in place on scrap metal trading to implement a licensing system for the industry and curb vandalism of infrastructure, but this has since been lifted. Bans on scrap metal exports may also be put in place if a country deems it necessary to sustain its industries. Back in 2014, Ghana banned exports of ferrous scrap metal to prioritize the production needs of its growing steel industry.
The rationale behind such bans is indeed justified but some argue that bans stall the productivity of the scrap metal recycling industry and do not adequately address identified underlying problems. In countries lacking robust manufacturing industries and regulatory framework policies, bans may do little to address challenges other than illegal vandalism and theft acts. India for example has a steel scrap recycling policy that includes ferrous scrap in its steel production, thereby promoting the operations of responsible scrap metal recycling. By involving all stakeholders in the implementation of policies such as this, activities in the scrap metal industry can be regulated and standardized while presenting job opportunities to individuals. This will also deter instances of vandalism and theft.
Considering all the information provided, the scrap metal waste recycling industry is one holding significant economic importance for many nations and their citizens, especially for those employed within the industry. To fully harness the benefits that this industry offers, formalization of the sector must be prioritized to ensure adherence to responsible practices. This will go on to enhance operations in other industries that source raw materials from the scrap metal waste sector, while also helping to conserve the environment. Furthermore, the livelihood of informal recyclers will greatly be improved, leading to a more equitable scrap metal recycling industry.