Unlikely warriors saving Kenyans from electronic waste crisis

Sifa Ogana , lee mathenge, e-waste, electronic waste, waste disposal

Sifa Ogana (left) and Lee Mathenge at a past event.

Photo credit: CHRIS OMOLLO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The Environment ministry says about 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced globally yearly, with Kenya’s averaging 3,000 tonnes.
  • In 2019, the world produced 53.6 million tonnes. The ministry blames accumulation on legal loopholes in the face of increasing population and changing consumption patterns and lifestyles that prompt more reliance on electrical and electronic equipment, increased access to low-quality products with high rates of obsolescence and obsolete donations from developed countries.

Who invented the first electronic device, the relay? Apparently, there is no perfect answer. Some people claim it was Joseph Henry, an American scientist, in 1835. Others say it was Edward Davy, an Englishman who called it ‘electric relay’.

The relay was a remote switch controlled by electricity and used in long-distance telegraph circuits, repeating the signal coming in from one circuit and retransmitting it to another. Countless electronic devices have since been invented. However, in Kenya, most of the used electronics, including computers, cell phones, circuit boards, remote controls and watches, lie in repair shops or landfills, dumped and forgotten.

In the landfills, they are exposed to weather elements and release toxic materials such as lead, zinc, nickel, flame retardants, barium and chromium. Lead, for example, damages blood, kidneys and the nervous systems, when released into the environment.

To defuse the crisis, Sifa Ogana and Lee Mathenge, both aged 18, merged their interest in electronics and environmental conservation to collect and correctly dispose of e-waste.

lee mathenge, electronic waste, e-waste, waste disposal

Lee Mathenge collects electronic waste at  a home in Nairobi.

Photo credit: POOL

Every third Saturday of the month, they put their slacks on, head out to Kilimani in Nairobi, set up a tent, and collect electronic rejects from 10am to 3pm for disposal. They then load them into a truck belonging to Waste, Electrical, Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Centre, which recycles and disposes of e-waste safely.

“We met through our parents and launched the initiative on October 14, 2020, which was International E-Waste Day. We started by raising awareness on social media, printing out posters and sharing them with friends, families and schoolmates. When we started out in December 2020, we collected 300kg of e-waste. Overall, we have collected more than six tonnes,” Sifa explains.

He says the move was fronted by Kilimani Project Foundation, a community organisation passionate about improving lives. He, however, adds that collection has not been easy as some people are hesitant to hand over their dead devices.

“This is possibly because they bought them expensively, or the electronics have served them for so long that they have become emotionally attached to them. Others don’t see the importance of e-waste management, yet it is one of the growing environmental risks least paid attention to.” Sifa observes that attention goes to tree planting and plastic waste collection. “I don’t think the government is doing enough.”

Big problem

Lee terms e-waste a big problem whose impact has yet to be felt. He is concerned that young people are indifferent even after he invited them to join. “It’s sad because many users of electronics are young people, who don’t realise that they will be affected by improper disposal. This is why we need parents and teachers to take environmental wellness seriously. Environmental conservation should be incorporated in the education system.” He is, however, hopeful that e-waste management could present job opportunities. “There are companies in Europe that will take your phone and extract important metals such as gold, copper and silver, that is why phones are shipped there for recycling. After extraction, the metals are resold for profit.

“Environmental management authorities have also come up with producer responsibility, which dictates that companies financially take care of the electronics before they are released to the market. That will help regulate the amount of e-waste dumped in landfills.”

The Environment ministry says about 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced globally yearly, with Kenya’s averaging 3,000 tonnes. In 2019, the world produced 53.6 million tonnes. The ministry blames accumulation on legal loopholes in the face of increasing population and changing consumption patterns and lifestyles that prompt more reliance on electrical and electronic equipment, increased access to low-quality products with high rates of obsolescence and obsolete donations from developed countries.

The Global E-Waste Monitor report says 41.8 million tonnes of e-waste was discarded globally in 2014, comprising 12.8 million tonnes of small equipment such as vacuum cleaners and video cameras, and 11.8 million tonnes of large equipment such as washing machines.

The United Nations University estimated that the e-waste discarded in 2014 contained 16,500-kilotonne iron, 1,900-kilotonne copper, and 300-tonne gold. It also contained significant amounts of silver, aluminium, palladium, and other reusable minerals, valued at about Sh5 trillion. The waste also had mercury, cadmium, chromium, and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, which are toxic.  WEEE Centre Executive Assistant Joy Nyangweso says an average of 300 tonnes of e-waste is collected yearly, and one per cent recycled. The centre was set up to recycle electronics following a partnership with the Computers for Schools Kenya, a non-governmental organisation.

The NGO would collect obsolete computers from schools. However, when they piled up, they needed a sustainable solution. Through donors, it decided to train technicians in e-waste management. In 2012, WEEE was registered as a waste recycling centre. It now collects e-waste from firms and households.

“Since inception, the WEEE Centre has processed over 10,000 tonnes of e-waste; equal to at least 14,400 carbon dioxide emissions avoided. We manage e-waste through eco-friendly operations that are safe and protective of the environment and human health,” says Joy.

The materials are disassembled into fractions such as plastic, cables, metal, motherboards, and batteries, then sorted and treated. Batteries, mainly Lithium Ion, are tested and upcycled to make second life battery packs for use powered by solar. Lead acid batteries are refurbished, and those that cannot be reused are shipped to partners in the Netherlands.

Plastic is crushed or baled and recycled. “We currently export these to Malaysia, having recently signed a partnership to make building materials for affordable housing from recycled plastics. Metal and copper are smelted to make new products as copper cables are stripped to attain pure copper and plastic, which may be used to make jewellery,” says Joy.

“Fluorescent tubes are crushed using the bulb eater and shipped for treatment, while monitors and televisions are separated into fractions, then handled depending on the type of material.”

Disks are destroyed, and data wiped. The centre has partnered with companies and supply chain stores to instal collection bins.

“We have joined hands with Safaricom and over 100 youths in the informal sector to collect e-waste from landfills. We have set up a network of 630 individuals in the informal sector who are trained in collection and segregation, and established a network of partners across 15 African countries. We need to raise more awareness of the dangers of e-waste.”

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