By Christine Mahihu
Researcher, Data Science Lab
What do you do with your old phone when you upgrade to a newer version? What about those old TVs, radios and refrigerators, where do they end up? According to an international initiative that was formed to deal with the issue of e waste, Solving the E-waste Problem ( StEP), 48.9 million tonnes of e-waste was generated globally in 2012 and this number is expected to rise to 65.4 million tonnes by 2017.
Unfortunately, most of this waste ends up in developing countries such as Kenya, as a way for companies to avoid high recycling fees. The situation is further aggravated by lack of adequate regulation to control these imports or manage their disposal. In Kenya, the situation is not nearly as dire as other countries but this does not diminish the issue of e-waste management. Due to lack of accurate data on the exact amount of e-waste in the country, different industry players have made their own estimates. NEMA , referring to a study done by UNEP is 2010, estimates that Kenya generates 17,350 tons of e-waste annually - 11,400 tonnes from refrigerators; 2,800 tonnes from TVs; 2,500 tonnes from personal computers; 500 tonnes from printers; and 150 tonnes from mobile phones.
Another study by StEP in 2012, estimates that Kenyans generated 1.05 kg of e-waste per person with the country contributing 44,390 tonnes overall. In an interview with the East Africa Compliant Recycling’s managing director, the company estimated that Kenya generated 10,000 tonnes of e-waste in 2012, and that number increased by about 20% in 2013. What all these stakeholders agree on is that very little of this waste is properly disposed of, with most of it ending up stored in people’s homes/offices or improperly disposed of in waste dumps.
Human and environmental dangers presented by the improper handling of e-waste are numerous and are a growing cause of concern. According to NEMA, these range from hazardous materials such as mercury and lead leaching into the soil to toxic chemicals released to the air if burned. Kenyans’ use of electronic devices is set to increase as evidenced by growing rates of mobile phone penetration, now approximated at about 30 million users according to CCK and; the looming digital migration which will render some older television sets obsolete. The issue of e-waste is here with us but it does not have to be all gloom and doom.
A Journal Paper by Vallauti (2009) argues that e-waste and second hand imports are not necessarily bad, in fact they have led to what he calls a “grey economy” characterized by hardware reuse, recycling, and software pirating.
“In Kenya, like everywhere else on the continent, mobile phones literally never die, because of the technical expertise of thousands of meticulous workers constantly dismantling phones, studying circuit by circuit, re- adapting spare parts, never giving up until they learn how to fix the handset or to unlock it” Ugo V. (2009 ) Beyond E-waste: Kenyan Creativity and Alternative Narratives in the Dialectic of End-of-Life (pg 21-23).
This industry very existence has drastically lowered the cost of access to goods that were not intentionally priced or designed for the local market. In fact, we can analogize this to movie piracy (not that we support this at all!). I am willing to bet that Kenyan (pirated) movie watchers have consumed as much as if not more content than moviegoers in the western world.
A great example is the NGO, Computer for Schools, which has distributed 100,000 refurbished computers to 8,500 primary and secondary public schools. These computers, although with shorter life spans, have increased accessibility to this otherwise expensive technology that would have been out of reach for majority of Kenyans, not to mention the many youth now employed in the sector. There is an already booming informal industry around electronic goods, and policy maker’s goal should not be to dismantle it completely in the name of protecting consumers from cheap end-of -life products, but to create an environment where one man’s trash is another’s treasure.
The Great (opportunities)
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), there are many goodies one can extract from electronic waste. In its publication, e-waste toolkit, ITU states that no less that 20 precious metals can be extracted from cell phones.
“For every one million cell phones that are recycled, 16 tons of copper, 350 kilos of silver, 34 kilos of gold and 15 kilos of palladium can be recovered!” ITU.
In other words, if each of the 30 million cell phone owners in Kenya recycled an old phone today, one could mine 480 tons of copper, 10,500 kilos of silver, 1,020 kilos of gold and 450 kilos of palladium! What’s more, ITU states that from one ton of mobile phones one can extract 400g of gold compared to only 5g from one ton of gold ore– this gives traditional mining industries a run for their money.
In recognition of the potential in this field, East Africa Compliant Recycling (ERC), an e-waste treatment and recycling company, was recently launched with support from NEMA and the Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources. Supporting policy drafted by NEMA (although currently pending in parliament) has set up guidelines for handling, transporting and recycling e-waste, including placing responsibility on tech manufacturing companies. This new development will not only significantly contribute to fighting unregularly disposal of e-waste, but will also increase opportunities in the already existing informal recycling sectors and open up new job opportunities for millions of unemployed youth.
How can you benefit you ask?
Well, the EACR will be liaising with independent e-waste collectors, who will be licensed to collect waste from the general public, and then sell it in bulk back to the company – a great opportunity for entrepreneurs (Personal Communication, EACR presentation at World Bank E-waste Workshop, 2013). Other tech enthusiasts can also create innovative, low cost, locally relevant products from discarded electronics, creating a whole new recycling and production industry and thousands of jobs. In fact, at iHub Research, our Research and Development Group is working on a low cost educational robot made from recycled computer mouses and motors from old electronics like DVDs and Printers. The project is currently in beta phase but is an excellent example of the creativity one can employ while recycling electronic waste.
Reliable information on the current amounts of e-waste generated as well as a better understanding of the already informal e-waste ecosystem is desperately needed. This will be vital in allowing entrepreneurs, policy makers and regulators, civil society, as well as the tech community play their roles effectively in dealing with e-waste. Regardless of the many challenges and issues related to e-waste, great opportunities lie within the sector.
So don’t just sit there, go recycle!