The growing e-waste problem

 

BY PETER WANYONYI

Developing countries have never really been great at providing basic services, and Kenya is no exception. All around the country are rubbish dumps left to fester untreated, and in many cities garbage simply lies around uncollected. Add to this problem the now-growing amounts of e-waste, and the situation is set to get worse, not better.

E-waste is all types of electrical and electronic equipment that is unwanted, or has served its purposes and has then entered the local waste stream. It includes computers, TVs, radios, mobile phones, household appliances, and all other household or business items that have electronic circuits or components within them.

E-waste is growing very rapidly. This is partly because traditional electronic appliances have become cheaper than ever, and also because new categories of electronic items have become available to ever-increasing numbers of people – mobile phones and tablets, for example, are now ubiquitous in the developing world. The rapid replacement of such items, and the migration to digital TVs from analogue TVs is also creating large amounts of e-waste.

Unlike ordinary waste, though, e-waste needs special handling. This is because many of the materials used in the electronic circuitry are in fact quite toxic. For example, a common element in laptop batteries is the chemical cadmium, which is also extremely toxic to humans and affects bones and kidneys. When it leaks out of a rubbish dump, it can bio-accumulate in the environment and cause significant toxicity in the given location.

Other toxic chemicals found in electronic waste include lead, bromide compounds, beryllium, and even mercury. Mercury is so toxic that it causes damage to the nervous system, kidneys and brain, and is then passed onto infants through breast milk. And yet it is used abundantly in the lighting devices that make up flat-screen TVs.

 

Because of this, e-waste must have its own processing facilities, different from those of general waste of other types. Unfortunately, Kenya lacks the legislative tools needed to classify e-waste separately, and to ensure that it does not end up in the ordinary waste stream. A complication with e-waste is that it also sometimes contains valuable metals, such as copper, gold, silver, and so on. In some few cases, entrepreneurs have set up small plants to try to recover these metals from e-waste, but the returns are low and the problem doesn’t really go away: after they melt off the copper and other metals, there is still lots of waste left behind. Even worse, the burning of such e-waste releases compounds such as dioxins, which have very harmful effects on human immune and reproductive systems. Even worse, it is growing – it is estimated that e-waste is growing by at least 10% each year, and in Kenya there simply is no accounting for any of the e-waste we generate. We just don’t know how much electronic waste we are generating, and where it is all going.

Our current governance structure has provided a lot of impetus – and funds – to regions. A lot of these funds are being invested into computerisation projects and similar automation which requires lots of electronics. This is a good thing, because it is helping to close the digital divide between the cities and the rural areas. This, however, needs to go hand in hand with concerted efforts to keep e-waste suitably managed. Mountains of e-waste in the regions a few years from now are a distinct possibility, which raises concerns about their effect not just on humans, but also on the environment. County governments will need to grasp the problem before it gets out of hand, perhaps by setting up special e-waste collection points in the larger cities, and sensitising citizens about the dangers of simply discarding unwanted electronic items. 

The central government could also help. It would be uneconomical for counties to set up their own e-waste reprocessing centres, but the national government is able to set up a few of these centres quite easily, especially around the big cities – where e-waste is particularly plentiful. Centralising such processing would make economic sense, and would also ensure that the people who work with e-waste do so under safe conditions, given the toxicity of the compounds they come into contact with.

 

The lack of a national policy on e-waste is a shame, and one hopes our legislators get to work on some policies very soon – otherwise, e-waste will very rapidly become not just a serious eyesore like our ever-present mounts of garbage, but also a dangerous one that could quite literally poison citizens and make entire regions environmentally unhealthy to live in. 

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