E-waste is a mushrooming scourge of the technology revolution with up to 50 million tons of electronic rubbish generated annually - equivalent to the yearly global consumption of palm oil.
But while it’s not as glamorous as inventing an Uber or a Spotify, recycling that waste can be a gold mine.
Egyptian entrepreneur Essam Hashem saw his chance and, in 2006, jumped on it. He founded Spear Ink when he realized no one in the Middle East was interested in one extremely ordinary, but wide open, e-waste opportunity: used printer cartridges.
Used printer cartridges. (Image via Printer Repair Group)
Today, Spear Ink is one of the biggest e-waste recyclers in the Middle East and operates on a franchise model providing the machines and training on how to to refill cartridges. The head office is now in Dubai but it maintains a factory in Alexandria to build the machines themselves and to remanufacture old and damaged cartridges.
Hashem is now planning to launch a new franchise business for general e-waste, and says the new technology will be a first in the MENA region.
He says it takes about a gallon of oil to make one new laser printer cartridge, and every remanufactured cartridge saves about 1.1 kg of metal and plastic waste from heading for landfills.
“The real treasure, which is more than any income, is the enjoyment of turning trash into something useful,” Hashem says.
E-wasteland: a dump in Accra, Ghana. It's the biggest e-waste landfill in the world and is a dumping ground for dangerous electronic waste from around the globe. (Image via Cosima Dannoritzer)
Wamda: Why did you start Spear Ink?
Essam Hashem: In 2005, when I worked at an IT maintenance center, I was dealing with many companies in Egypt which consumed a lot of printer cartridges. I wondered why they sent that 'big treasure' of aluminum, plastics, and microchips to the landfill every year - even if there is no recycling option, at least they can reuse.
There were many small refill shops but large companies didn't want to risk low printing quality or using toxic components, due to the bad reputation of those stores. Meanwhile, big banks or any entity that has a yearly purchase strategy preferred the packed and guaranteed product.
Our main job is recycling empty cartridges, refurbishing and remanufacturing new cartridges, and our aim is to do this environmentally, safely and at a high quality. We collect the old cartridges, remanufacture the ones that are damaged, and we segregate and classify the parts into plastics and metals.
I opened my first warehouse in Alexandria in 2006, and began franchising the technology in Egypt and Syria.
Wamda: How have you convinced businesses to try Spear Ink?
Hashem: My business is based on cultural change around waste disposal, so I needed to put a lot of effort into awareness campaigns and waste collection campaigns.
Hashem, with a Spear Ink refiller, as the business began to expand to Jordan and Lebanon. (Image via Essam Hashem)
For example, we have the Green Sharm and Green Aswan initiatives for electronic waste collection, collaborating with the governorate and Ministry of Environment. It was a kind of corporate social responsibility, to raise the awareness about hazardous e-waste, and to each governmental organizations and NGOs how to eliminate it.
Wamda: As taking care of the environment is clearly an important part of Spear Ink, are you able to measure how much of an environmental impact you're having?
Hashem: Our monthly average refilling rate is 4,000 cartridges. Yearly this saves approximately
• 15 tons of plastic
• 2.5 tons of aluminum
• 2.5 tons of toner powder
• 5 tons of rubber and metals
• 4.5 tons of polyurethane and metals
The carbon footprint of a remanufactured cartridge is approximately 2.8 kg, which means we save 134,400 kg of CO2 emissions every year.
The clean technology also protects laborers' health unlike the traditional method of 'drill and fill’: a hole is drilled into the old cartridge, the new powder added and the hole sealed, exposing the refiller to breathing in harmful toner powder.
Wamda: Can you explain Spear Ink’s technology?
Hashem: I did many trials to achieve a high standard of cartridge remanufacturing to avoid toxic dust and other bad environmental effects. Unfortunately, there was no Egyptian industry standard so instead I used the American American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) benchmark for refilled cartridges.
I took one year to research and design the first refill machine, but it was too low-tech with a semiautomatic process and some manual operation. But the first prototype was very simple so when I finished with few mistakes I was really confident it could work.
Our latest technology now lets you do everything through a touch screen. We import micro-electronics systems from Siemens and the machines include a cartridge circuit tester.
For the last five years we’ve worked hard to design and plan a production line to include all electronic waste, including precious metals. This will be the first Arabian machinery for metal recovery from e-waste.
A Spear Ink refilling machine. (Image via Alibaba)
Wamda: What have been the biggest obstacles?
Hashem: The main challenges were in the last four years. By end of 2010 I had three branches, two in Egypt and one in Syria, so the revolutions there stopped me from being able to export from those centers.
In Egypt, it was one of my dreams to see a political change as I experienced the real face of the bureaucracy’s effect on business. On the first day of the revolution I was happy as I thought my industry would start to build, but now I think the Egyptian revolution has been against me, not against Mubarak.
The worst effect was because of the security situation.
We started out trained franchisers at our site in Alexandria, but although we began to do training at clients’ sites it wasn’t enough. All people were too afraid to visit Egypt or deal with companies from Egypt, and for final products that was no market for exports too.
So we did as much as we could in the local market. It was very hard as traders here to use installment payments, making things difficult for us financially. But gradually we started to make some deals with nearby markets such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which understand the Egyptian situation.
E-waste toxic components and their threat to human health. (Image via Rachel Williamson)
Before the revolution, the main problem was competition with illegal brokers. They would make counterfeit cartridges so were able to pay more for collection and sell fake products for higher prices. Our solution was through awareness to build a culture with a commitment for society. We pay three Egyptian pounds ($0.38) per used cartridge.
It wasn’t one hundred percent successful but it was enough, given our smaller scale at the time.
Wamda: What are your plans for the future?
Hashem: Our Spear Ink brand has expanded quickly outside Egypt and through Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon by selling franchises. Now we are developing a production line for precious metal recovery from e-waste, and will launch a new franchise business this year in Dubai called “Dr. WEEE.”
WEEE stands for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, and it will recycle electronics as well as cartridge remanufacturing in the United Arab Emirates. The franchise will include classification and dismantling of electronics, with some processing such as shredding and hard drive crushing.
We’re exporting to 15 countries in Africa and the MENA region such as Morocco, Ghana and Uganda, and now we want to target the Indian and Pakistani markets as well. For those we’re still in the marketing and planning stage.