The hazardous nature of e-waste is one of the rapidly growing environmental problems of the world
By Catherine Kuria
Each year in Kenya, hundreds of thousands of computers, monitors, copiers, fax machines, printers, television sets and other electronic items become “obsolete” in the eyes of consumers. Rapid advances in technology and an expanding demand for new features accelerate the generation of “old” electronic equipment (“e-waste”). The result is a growing challenge for businesses, residents, and local governments as they search for ways to re-use, recycle, or properly dispose of this equipment.
Electronic waste (e-waste) is one of the fastest-growing pollution problems worldwide given the presence of a variety of toxic substances which can contaminate the environment and threaten human health, if disposal protocols are not meticulously managed. Some may wonder, what is e-waste? E-waste is described as discarded electrical or electronic devices. Used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal are also considered e-waste.
In the country, E-Waste Initiative Kenya was founded by Mr. Lawrence Thuo who also serves as its Executive Director. The company was registered in 2016 and comprises several small businesses which work together as a team. There are currently around 1200 e-waste collectors in the country riding on E-Waste Initiative Kenya. A draft bill that was proposed in parliament on the regulation of e-waste in the country is yet to be passed formally, five years after its proposition.
How did E-Waste Initiative Kenya come into existence?
After clearing high school at the age of 17, Mr. Thuo ventured into electronics repair and servicing. He later decided to do a small course known as Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and his knowledge in information technology ( IT) grew. With a team of co-workers, he developed a point of sale where they created software and sold it to several supermarkets. In 2006 his company, Celtom Systems, closed down.
An idea struck his mind and since he was well known in the corporate world, he was able to acquire e-waste from his previous clients. He intended to sell back to the market the first batchof e-waste he collected at a cheaper price. He teamed up with other individuals forming a group of 10 and started doing massive collection of e-waste.
The group partnered with a Chinese company that collected e-waste from them. The company has now grown to 1200 e-waste collectors. “I have personally trained 500 people who are not in our team. My partners have also trained an equal number. 150 individuals have set up their businesses similar to this while others have been absorbed in our industry,” narrates Mr. Thuo. E-Waste Initiative Kenya is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that has pulled people together so that they can work as a team. A big voice was needed to represent the informal sector in the industry.
E-Waste Initiative has used social media and public forums like conferences to sensitize and market their services. Clients reach out to them where they go to access the value of the e-waste and negotiate on the prices. Some clients may choose to donate their e-waste while others opt to sell it.
They have two e-waste centres; in Kiambu and Ngara where they do an inventory of what they have collected. They segregate the re-usable ones from the obsolete. In addition, they apply some creativity on the e-waste commodities to upgrade them for reselling. They may choose to dismantle some parts of the e-waste gadgets and get parts. They go a step further to separate the metals from the plastics for innovation. In some cases, they assemble products. All their branded commodities are made from pure waste.
Since its inception, E-Waste Initiative Kenya has helped transform the lives of many people. The organization has helped clean up our environment in partnership with the Nairobi County government, for instance, the Nairobi River which used to be a pleasant sight but later became a dumping ground for all sorts of electronic waste along with plastic bottles and bags. This exposes Kenyans to severe health risks as the chemicals seep into the water and find their way into crops that people eventually consume. They have been very vocal about issues relating to climate change and have partnered with the United Nations University and the E-Waste Academy in their quest for change.
They have also done tree planting and engaged with medical partners who help them curb health risks emanating from electronic waste. Economically, they have been able to empower the youth, ex convicts and retirees. As part of their community development programme, they have been holding conferences as well as technical and vocational education and training (TVET) training sessions in partnership with the Kiambu County government, covering 33 polytechnics to date. Mr. Thuo expounds: “We are still in our pilot project whereby we have reached out to 270 students from Kiambu County.” E-Waste Initiative has also partnered with the World Bank and the National Industrial Training Institute (NITA) in offering training on e-waste management and electronic repairs.
According to the United Nations, only 10-15 percent of the gold in e-waste is successfully recovered while the rest is lost. Ironically, electronic waste contains deposits of precious metal estimated to be between 40 and 50 times richer than ores mined from the earth. The unregulated movement of e-waste to countries where cheap labor and primitive approaches to recycling have resulted in health risks to local residents exposed to the release of toxins continues to be an issue of concern.
Old electronic devices contain toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium hence proper processing is essential to ensure that these materials are not released into the environment. They may also contain other heavy metals and potentially toxic chemical flame retardants. Not only does recycling help the environment and foster better health, it also provides more jobs. Taking the time to recycle supports both commercial and local businesses resulting in boosting the economy as well as providing materials for new electronics that do not have to be extracted from the environment a second time.
Recycling also allows for additional safety measures to be introduced and thereby better controlling toxic chemicals like mercury and lead. In the electronics recycling process, valuable materials can be recovered from the electronics that can be used to be made into new products. As a result we reduce pollution and save energy by extracting fewer raw materials from the earth.
Next time you feel like your electronic gadget has served you with enough, do not toss it into a garbage bin but instead take it to the E-Waste Initiative Kenya. They will protect you, the environment and crucially, everyone else.