Nairobi — Unregulated disposal of discarded electronic devices and appliances, known as electronic waste, or "e-waste", is creating an environmental challenge in Kenya.
E-waste contains many recyclable, valuable metals such as aluminium, copper, gold, silver and iron. But if dumped in a landfill, toxic and hazardous materials such as mercury, lead, cadmium, beryllium and chromium, may leach into the soil and water. If burned, hazardous chemicals may be released into the air.
"Failure to have proper mechanisms to dispose of our electronics is contributing to the environmental degradation behind the changing weather patterns causing droughts, as well as increasing cases of cancer," said Jacob Kibwage, an associate professor at South Eastern University College and director of the Africa Waste and Environment Management Centre.
Kibwage said there need to have strict laws and policies regulating the import of used electronics from developed countries into Kenya.
"Because there is no law regarding e-waste, some smart but selfish businesses have found developing countries a dumpsite for electronics," he told Sabahi. "They collect used electronics in the developed world, refurbish them and re-sell them locally."
Kibwage said some electronics producers in European and Asian countries re-furbish their products and export them to developing nations to escape high fees and penalties for dumping e-waste in their home countries.
"After reaching Kenya, the [devices] only work for months and then are dead," he said. "With no clear mechanism for e-waste disposal and management, individuals tend to store obsolete gadgets in their homes and office. Also, large quantities of e-waste exist in stockpiles in dumpsites across the country."
Kibwage called on the government to establish collection and recycling facilities across the country to properly dispose of electronics.
Turning an e-challenge into an e-opportunity:
Eoghan Crosby, managing director of East African Compliant Recycling in Mombasa, estimates that roughly 10,000 tonnes of e-waste was generated in Kenya in 2012, and that number is expected to increase by 20% this year.
"But less than 3,000 tonnes make it to our recycler, meaning we should be very worried about the obsolete gadgets that are left in the hands of [consumers] with no knowledge on how to dispose them," he told Sabahi.
To avoid the electronics ending up in the landfills or being burned, he said the government should establish a formal, regulated process for collecting and recycling e-waste.
"This can be done by setting up facilities to manage e-waste," he said. "This will help turn this e-challenge to an e-opportunity, where the communities can collect their used gadgets and sell them to these facilities which can recycle them and make other products."
"With an integrated approach where there is regulation on collection and recycling, e-waste products can be disposed of safely," he said.
The government is aware that e-waste is becoming a national burden, said Betty Nzioka, deputy director of the Environmental Awareness at National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).
She said all sectors of society have contributed to increased e-waste, including the government with the introduction of online services.
"The ever changing technologies are rendering a lot of equipment redundant," she told Sabahi, admitting that they have not paid enough attention to the issue.
She said her agency forwarded a draft law to parliament two months ago that would provide a framework for managing e-waste, but it has not yet been scheduled for debate.
If the law is approved by parliament, it will give NEMA authority to approve all electronics imports, Nzioka said. Manufacturers of electronics will be required to get approval and an annual compliance certificate from the authority before they can sell their goods in Kenya.
"For those manufacturers or importers to get approval, their products must have recycling instructions on how they can be disposed of once they are worn out," she said. Manufacturers will also be required to pay a fee for the costs associated with recycling collection.