The safe disposal of unwanted computers, printers, mobile phones, and other electronics, collectively known as “e-waste”, is a growing problem across Africa. The world produces more than 50 million tons of e-waste each year, but less than one-quarter of that is recycled at the source. Many of these electronics enter Africa in the form of donations or products for sale.
After a fairly short life-span, they end up in dumps, with governments having little or no capacity to dispose of them safely. But in Kenya, guidelines and an e-waste recycling plant are spearheading e-waste efforts in East Africa.
A brave new world. Students at Our Lady of Nazareth Primary School in one of Nairobi’s informal settlements have gone digital. They are using second-hand computers donated by a European non-profit group. These machines have been cleaned, checked, and configured for use here and in other institutions.
But most donated computers coming to Africa are not so high-quality.
“Unfortunately, when these donations come, they will be useful in the institutions for a very short period of time, maybe one or two years. Even during that time, it is very expensive to maintain them because of the frequency of the breakdowns,” says Esther Mwiyeria Wachira, education technologist at Global e-Schools and Communities Initiative, or GeSCI, a non-profit group founded by the United Nations to help developing countries use information and communications technology, or ICT, to improve their education systems.
Wachira says the worst part is that, after one or two years, most computer donations end up here, as e-waste - electrical and electronic equipment that is old, no longer valuable to their owners, or whose life-span has expired.
Many of Africa’s second-hand electronics come from European countries, either in the form of donations or products for sale. But much of it ends up being unusable in the long run, destined for the dump.
What is worse, African countries lack the capacity to deal with the lead, cadmium, mercury, plastics and other toxins contained in discarded electronics.
Vice President of the European Union Neelie Kroes says European countries have strict laws against e-waste dumping at home and abroad, and are required to recycle or treat e-waste so that it does not harm the environment. She says she thinks it is important for African governments to deal effectively with e-waste as well.
“Of course, it is tempting for countries that are not yet developed to take it for granted and think, we first need to be active, to push our economy, so the more e-commerce, e-environment there is the better and we will think over later the waste problem.” she said.
South Africa is the only African country that has legislation specifically covering e-waste. Kenya has e-waste guidelines that are expected to become law within two years’ time,
Kenya is also taking the lead in East Africa in the area of e-waste recycling. In Nairobi, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Centre has recycled more than 4000 computers since its inception in 2007.