Why electronic waste is Kenya’s big headache

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A technician at the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Centre (WEEE Centre) in Utawala, Nairobi on Tuesday. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG

Where is the phone you owned ten years ago? Where will the smartphone you currently own be in a decade’s time? Well, the accurate answer to both questions for many Kenyans is ‘I do not know.’

But the two queries form what experts say has remained ignored in the management of electronic waste in Kenya, as many electronic equipment owners keep damping their e-waste irresponsibly and contributing to a potential crisis.

In a period where the pandemic has pushed many businesses online, forcing them to adapt to working virtually, the demand for electronic devices such as smartphones, Wi-Fi routers, laptops, desktops, scanners, cables, modems, charges, batteries and solar power devices shot to an all-time high as corporates doubled efforts to keep processes running.

When Digital Business visited Kenya’s biggest e-waste management centre in Utawala, Nairobi ahead of the International E-waste Day celebrated on October 13 every year, heaps of waste made of metallic, glass, plastic materials placed in different stores welcomed us into one of the recyclers helping control the ever increasing volumes of out-of-use devices.

Boniface Mbithi, the managing director at the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Centre noted that Kenya’s e-waste is poorly managed, despite efforts by companies and the National Environment Management Authority to control how it is disposed.

“Only 1 per cent of e-waste in properly managed in Kenya. Since 2012, we have been collecting this waster from government offices, corporates and second-hand dealers for proper disposal. We have trained 600 dealers but still more capacity is needed,” he told Digital Business at the centre.

The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) describes e-waste as “discarded electrical or electronic devices or appliances that have ceased to be of any value to their owners.”

According to the Global E-Waste Monitor report of 2020, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, up 21 percent in just five years.

The report predicts global e-waste will reach 74 metric tonnes by 2030, making e-waste the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, fuelled mainly by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few options for repair.

A WEEE Forum survey indicates that only 17.4 percent of 2019’s e-waste was collected and recycled in the world.

This means that gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at Sh5.7 trillion, a sum slightly more than half of Kenya’s GDP in 2019 were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse.

Around the globe, e-waste accounts for only 2 percent of debris in landfills but contributes two-thirds of heavy metal toxins, making it one of the main contributors to toxic leaching. These metals break down in the soil, emitting dangerous gases harmful to humans and the environment.

Mr Mbithi says that WEEE Centre collects about 40 tonnes of e-waste every month and have done over 10,000 tonnes since 2012 but contamination of water and soil when rain water washes down dangerous metal toxins is becoming a ticking bomb for communities living along rivers.

“Tens of dangerous chemicals are found in these IT waste materials. We have 15 areas where we classify the waste we collect and treat. We do repairs for reuse, obtain useful parts but then there is the junk that is useless that we store properly in container to protect them from sunshine and rain.”

He adds that most elements found in e-waste are carcinogenic, and have in the past caused lung failure, brain damage and even maimed reproductive health.

“For instance, second-hand dealers of electronic goods only store them in an open yard. When it rains all those toxic metals are washed into Nairobi River and affects the health of communities living along that river to the coast,” Mr Mbithi notes.

Businesses contribute a huge amount of e-waste, and in the past, many simply took it to landfills or had it illegally dumped.

In the face of climate change, only a few companies in Kenya have had sustainable ways to handle e-waste. Making repairs, finding a reputable recycling company, donating older products and cutting down on purchases are just a few ways businesses can manage their e-waste problem.

In 2012, Safaricom launched an e-waste management programme with the objective of providing an end-to-end management solution for out of use electronic gadgets.

“As part of our integrated waste management programme we have collected over 1,200 tonnes of e-waste working in partnership with the WEEE Centre in Nairobi, the Communications Authority and NEMA. We now want to encourage and promote wider participation from multiple stakeholders in the e-waste management process”, said Peter Ndegwa, CEO, Safaricom on Tuesday.

As part of the programme 100 e-waste handlers and 15 electronic repairers will be trained on various best practices and eventually licensed by Nema. The programme will also aim to improve the health and safety practices among informal workers in the sector.

Retha Moraa, head of recycling oprations at WEEE Centre told Digital Business that corporates must start considering formulating a sustainable green energy strategy.

“It is time for companies to be conscious about the environment. More awareness is needed among communities. E-waste collectors must be licensed so that debris does not end up in the Dandora dumpsite,” she said.

Mr Mbithi opines that a public-private-partnership will be the solution towards ending the menace, and a law that dictates how e-waste should be managed is needed.

“Kenya needs more capacity in handling e-waste. We have policies and guidelines by the government but that is not enough. A law is required to create awareness about the dangers of improper e-waste management and impose levies for management of waste, shared between the government and private recyclers,” he explains.