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African Governments Urged To Address Growing E-Waste

A group of development specialists and representatives from the United Nations, governments, private sector and civil society have agreed to come up with new ways to curb the rising levels of electronic waste (e-waste) in Africa. Participants at a recent meeting in Nairobi said that obsolete computers, refrigerators, televisions, mobile phones and other devices often originating from Europe were routinely being thrown away on unsupervised dumpsites across Africa, posing serious threats to human and environmental health.

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Reuben Kyama

The representatives from 18 African states and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)  say Africa could have more e-waste than Europe by 2017.  That’ not only because of an increase in discarded lap tops, mobile phones and other products from Europe, but to increased demand in Africa for new electronic devices.

Ali D. Mohamed, Kenya’s Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Mineral Resources, says the problem of e-waste is a real threat.

Electronic waste such as old televisions, computers, radios and cell phones is a growing environmental problem
Electronic waste such as old televisions, computers, radios and cell phones is a growing environmental problem

"Africa’s environmental challenges are growing by the day," he said, "This includes the exponential growth of electronic waste. The numbers of people in our countries are exploding. In Kenya, we now have 40-plus million people, many of whom are urbanizing very rapidly... That means the consumption and production patterns of our society will change very much and we will be using many of the gadgets that will eventually end up as hazardous waste, including the e-waste."

Kenya generates 3,000 tons of electronic waste per year – a figure that is set to rise as demand for electronic goods increases. Mohamed says priority actions for reducing the environmental and health impacts of the growing levels of e-waste are being pursued, alongside promoting the sector’s potential for green jobs and economic development.

"We are trying to cope up with the challenges," said Mohamed. "What we have done is to try to address this issue through new legislative guidelines and policies."

The recycling of e-waste in most of Africa today occurs at informal dumpsites or landfills. Hazardous substances can be released during these dismantling and disposal operations. Open burning of cables, for example, is a major source of dioxin emissions; a persistent organic pollutant that travels over long-distances and can end up in food chain.

However, there have been some innovative projects in Kenya that aims at reversing the trend, such as the Computer for Schools, which refurbishes second-hand computers and sends them back to schools with an extended life."

I was so impressed when I went to their facility in Mombasa to see seven tons of iron that had been recycled from e-waste that is send back to the industries," said Mohamed..

Speaking at the forum, Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, said sustainable management of e-waste can combat poverty and generate green jobs through recycling and safeguard the environment and human health from the hazards posed by rising levels of discarded electronics.

"If you take a ton of cell phones today and remove the batteries and recycle the handsets," explained Steiner, "you will be able to recover 3.5 kilos of silver, 340 grams of gold, 130 kilograms of copper. These numbers may even be overtaken because other substances are being taken.  What it shows you is that if you take that mountain of e-waste, which is growing exponentially globally and also on the African continent, you begin to create a different framework for managing the e-waste and instead of having the problem of dumping and posing health risks, you turn this into job opportunities."

With just a months to go before the kick-off of the Rio+20 conference in Brazil, the event has underlined how smart public policies, creative financial incentives and technology transfer can turn e-waste from a challenge into an important resource for sustainable development.

Katharina Kummer-Peiry, Executive Secretary of the Basel Convention told the delegates that priority existing laws need to be enforced to improve the environmentally-sound management of e-waste in Africa.

These would include implementation and enforcement by African states of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal and the Bamako Convention.  It bans the import of hazardous wastes into Africa, the development of national systems to improve the collection, recycling, transport, storage and disposal of e-waste.

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