The future of Palestine’s recycling hub: between promise and peril

Around 2004, as they became increasingly barred from employment options within Israel, the inhabitants of a cluster of southern Palestine villages began to adapt their proximity to the border and longstanding used goods networks and expertise to a promising new segment of Israel’s waste flows. Alongside furniture, clothes, and more familiar items they had collected, repurposed and sold, now e-waste, ranging from fridges and air conditioners to computers and televisions, was becoming an increasingly large and valuable portion of the materials discarded by Israeli homes and businesses. With metal prices rising substantially, local businesses learned to recycle and refurbish electrical and electronic goods, fueling the emergence of a regional e-waste recycling hub. A thriving and almost entirely informal industrial cluster emerged, whose efficient extended collection network, vertical integration, ingenuity, and economies of scale combined with low labor costs enabled it to extract considerable value from Israel’s waste. Soon it would process more than half of Israel’s e-waste for more than two decades, with the metals extracted becoming Palestine’s second largest yet almost entirely unnoticed export to Israel. At the same time, as with similar hubs globally, the crude recycling practices created massive landscape-scale contamination with heavy metals and persistent organic contaminants, led to increasingly noticeable health and environmental impacts and local protest.

On the Israeli side, as e-waste emerged as a policy issue as well as a potential resource, e-waste legislation modeled on European EPR policies emerged. Now, a waste flow that had conveniently and invisibly disappeared for decades, became an object of competition for Israeli recyclers trying to meet the mandated collection quotas. At the same time, Israeli inhabitants near these areas were increasingly frustrated by smoke from the burning of cables to extract copper, and of materials discarded in the recycling process as well as household waste, which municipal systems could not handle. More recently, the settler residents of the West Bank, who now enjoy significant influence over the Israeli government and public opinion, merged these environmental concerns with their longstanding annexationist agenda, calling for imposition of Israeli laws and aggressive enforcement efforts to stamp out the industry’s flow of inputs and outputs.

In this talk I will summarise my work over the last decade, to create a team of local Palestinian community and international researchers, supported by international agencies, to understand and sustainably reform the dynamics of this value chain in a way that preserves livelihoods but reduces their harms. I will try provide insights into the local geopolitical inflection of global patterns, and the broader lessons of this microcosm for research into e-waste impacts and policies, and the necessity and promise of a hub-driven approach to the reform of e-waste research, policies and practices.