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5 minutes with… Reinhardt Smit, supply chain director, Closing The Loop, Netherlands

5 minutes with… Reinhardt Smit, supply chain director, Closing The Loop, Netherlands

October 8, 2019
Marcia González

Out of the two billion phones being produced yearly, just a very small minority is being recycled and even less is being recycled responsibly. Closing The Loop is changing all that by offering users and sellers of phones an easy way to make their device material-neutral and waste free. Reinhardt Smit, supply chain director, tells E-Waste World Conference & Expo how he became involved

How did you end up in the industry?
It was by pure chance. Through working and growing-up in Africa, I have always been connected to various projects on the continent. One of those projects connected me to Closing the Loop, and I started working with the company in 2015. Together with the founder, Joost de Kluijver, we saw the enormous opportunity that the e-waste situation brings on the African continent, and how we can connect it to the telecom industry. That’s why we work with the telecom industry and address its biggest challenge: electronic waste. We want our industry to become waste-free. And our company is doing that by turning e-waste into commercial and social value.

What is your role within Closing The Loop?
Our company brings together two worlds: the non-transparent, informal and quite ‘dirty’ world of electronic waste in Africa, where it creates the most trouble; and the mature, very professional world of the sales of new and used phones. I tackle the first part, and Joost’s role focuses on the second part. I work within the logistics, supply chain and recycling scope of our business, ensuring that our supply chain works and complies with the many regulations and guidelines out there. Electronic waste was long considered just a problem, and the solutions far away. We try to show that the solutions are already here, and that it is possible to work in this industry in a fair and honest manner in developing countries. And on top of that, we show that there’s a business case for the work we do, despite the many costs. One very straightforward way we do this is by offsetting phones for our customers: when they buy a new phone, we collect and recycle an African scrap phone on their behalf. Offsetting is currently the only effective and affordable way to implement circularity into procurement for IT.

Electronic waste was long considered just a problem, and the solutions far away. I try to show that the solutions are already here, and that it is possible to work in this industry in a fair and honest manner in developing countries

What exciting projects/innovations are you working on at the moment?
We are preparing for a collaboration with a certifying company that will include our offsetting approach in their label for green IT. This will be a huge step for the credibility of our work, and also allows for large brands to implement our approach. We are also working hard to make a unique shipment possible: the export of a container filled with scrap batteries from Nigeria to Europe. Lithium-ion batteries are probably one of the biggest challenges in the e-waste world. But we see big possibilities in them as well.

We very much think that as IT is so global – in its production, mining but of course also its use – the solution should also have a global scope

There are signs that e-waste is starting to get media attention, not as much as plastic pollution, but at least some coverage?
E-waste is complex. The topic cannot deliver media bites such as the ones you hear around plastic –  ‘no more plastic’ or ‘use bio-based plastic’. Electronics cause much bigger and quite different problems in emerging markets, in comparison to developed markets. That makes it sometimes feel less important for consumers in Europe. We think that as IT is so global – in its production, mining but of course also its use – the solution should also have a global scope.

What would you say is the single biggest challenge facing the e-waste sector today?
In my view, it’s that most see it as ‘just’ a problem. Media, academia, governments, the industry, IT users and even some recyclers hardly talk about the huge opportunities hidden in this waste treasure: metals of course, but especially social and economical value. If e-waste remains seen as mainly a problem, it will be very difficult to mobilize market forces; it’s much easier to scale a solution that creates value, than one that ‘only’ solves a problem.

How would you suggest we overcome that challenge?
The telecom industry is really good at telling great stories. But that strength and marketing power could also be used for a green purpose, to create an appealing story of how we can all contribute to more recycling – not because you have to or by stating it’s one’s responsibility – but by proclaiming the beauty of working together to make this industry waste-free and sustainable.

One of the greatest barriers for people to do the work I do legally, is because the bureaucracy and the effort needed to do it correctly is immense. And this is just so we can get waste from where it’s being dumped to where it can be used. The laws are now having a negative effect in some situations

Is e-waste legislation tough enough – or perhaps not quick enough to adapt rules to faster-changing electronics development cycles?
It depends on how you look at it, as the answer can be both. On the one hand, it’s not tough enough, because the regulations don’t account for the impact that the huge (and important) second-hand market has. But on the other hand, legislation makes proper disposal and movement of waste extremely hard, even in legitimate cases. One of the greatest barriers for people to do the work I do legally, is that the bureaucracy and the effort needed to do it correctly is immense. And this is just so we can get waste from where it’s being dumped to where it can be used. The laws are now having a negative effect in some cases.

Which countries are success stories for you when it comes to dealing with e-waste and why?
Rwanda is doing very well. Their permitting process is smooth, the country is creating an effective legal framework, combined with actual recycling capacity. We worked with a telecom operator – Airtel – on fighting e-waste, which is still the only example we have in Africa. Nigeria is also well on its way to getting things done correctly. But unfortunately, everyone is still very much focused on copying the same processes and legislation from part of the world to another. We need to look at more innovative and emerging business and financial models as well.

Everyone is still very much focused on copying the same processes and legislation from one country to another. We need to look at more innovative and emerging business and financial models as well

What do you hope delegates will take away from what you tell them at E-Waste World Conference & Expo?
Circularity is often seen as quite complex, something relevant maybe in the future and rather abstract. I’m hoping to explain that circular IT can be offered now, in a practical, affordable and appealing way that generates economic and social value, while bringing the reality of a waste-free telecom within reach.

Reinhardt Smit will be delivering a presentation entitled ‘Inclusive business model for a waste-free telecom industry’ at E-Waste World Conference & Expo (synopsis below). The conference will take place from Thursday 14 November to Friday 15 November at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Germany. To register for this highly focused, solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email peter@trans-globalevents.com

 

Amsterdam-based social enterprise ‘Closing the Loop’ believes cell phones can become waste-free. But with two billion phones being produced each year and just a few percent being recycled in emerging markets, that can be challenging. Closing the Loop has spent the past five years building two things: an African scrap-collection network and a business model that can fuel proper, safe and corruption-free e-waste management. The company’s supply chain director, Reinhardt Smit, will reveal to delegates how Closing the Loop managed to bring Samsung, T-Mobile and many others on board towards ‘circularity for phones’.

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