A ban on the dumping of electronic waste in the region received a boost after the East African Community (EAC) prohibited the importation of cathode rays tubes (CRTs) and standalone used computer monitors with effect from July 1, 2022.
The East African Community Sectoral Council on Trade, Industry, Finance and Investment (SCTIFI) held a meeting in Arusha on November 12, chaired by Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary in charge of Trade and Industrialisation Betty Maina, in which the partner states — Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan — agreed unanimously to ban dumping of e-waste in the region.
The decision follows concerns that firms in developed countries were exporting these items to developing countries, purportedly as refurbished and good for use, while instead were dumping them so that they don’t have to deal with the e-waste when they become obsolete. Many African countries have non-existent or unsafe recycling practices, which endanger both people’s health and the environment.
Items with CRTs are particularly harmful because they contain lead, a known toxin. The lead content could be as much as to 1.5kg to 2kg in one piece of CRT, which can cause severe environmental and health impacts.
Once dumped in landfills, the lead-filled CRT glass leachate seeps into the soil and groundwater, and, when broken down, the lead dust particles pollute the air.
“During the SCTIFI, Tanzania informed the meeting that after consultations, they are in agreement with the proposal to prohibit importation of cathode rays and standalone used computer monitors,” said Maina.
“The ministers and Cabinet Secretary agreed to prohibit importation of cathode rays and standalone used computer monitors with effect from July 1, 2022.”
The ban of these products by the EAC will result in national legislations that will effectively curtail imports of such electronic waste from the West.
The EAC decision and subsequent laws are expected to push the value of electronics up, as importers and sellers of electronic gadgets — TVs, radios, mobile phones, electric cables and equipment — will be responsible for handling the waste generated.
Most e-waste in Africa comes from Australia, China, the EU, Japan, North America, South Korea, the US and Canada.
In January 2007, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a federal government organisation, created to protect human health and the environment, began regulating the export of CRTs under a rule requiring companies to notify EPA before exporting them.
However, the US hazardous waste regulations have not deterred exports of potentially dangerous used electronics.
“In context, e-waste is not only an African, but global issue. And while steps have been made, there is more that can still be done,” said Richard Munang, Unep’s regional climate change co-ordinator for Africa.
“The global generation of e-waste has increased by 21 percent since 2014. While Africa produces far less, the significant portion on the continent is a result of the transboundary movement of e-waste.”
Munang cited numerous conventions that forbid dumping e-waste in Africa. However, few African countries have failed to ban e-waste.
“The Basel Convention forbids developed countries from dumping e-waste in Africa,” said Mr Munang. “On the continent, the Bamako convention prohibits importation into Africa of any hazardous waste, including e-waste, and has been in force for 22 years now. Collection and recycling levels on the continent are the lowest, at 0.9 percent.”
He blamed the dumping on the fact that few African countries have passed national legislation regarding e-waste regulation.
“The most significant gaps are twofold. The first is policy. Globally, only about 40 percent of countries have some form of e-waste policy. In Africa, only about 13 countries have passed national legislation regarding e-waste regulation – about 24 percent,” Munang said.
“This then means that the international and continental level regulation has not been adequately domesticated. Bridging this policy gap therefore needs to be the first step.”
The second significant gap is that the domestication of these regulations needs to be postured as an incentive.
“We must ask ourselves, how can Africa’s policy response to e-waste be premised as a source of income and job opportunities including for the youth – where there is already a gap of no less than 12 million jobs needed each year in Africa.”
Although e-waste is dangerous and toxic, there are circumstances in which it has created jobs in Africa.
“For example, the extraction of precious metals from dysfunctional e-waste in Africa is valued to be about $10 billion. And for this, the target needs to be put to the informal sector who account for 80 percent of work in the continent and already do most of the collection and recycling of e-waste widely referred to as ‘scavengers’.”
He suggested that in order to recycle e-waste in a manner that is beneficial to the populations, African countries should consider giving incentives.
“Incentives targeted for instance at co-operatives, which are the to go financiers of up to 90 percent of Africa’s informal sector, to enable them finance acquisition of safety equipment for these scavengers and thereby ensure their safety as they do the recycling, and enable them formalise their businesses, can go a long way,” he said.
Currently, the informal collection and recycling of e-waste in Africa generates daily revenues of between $0.22 and $9 per person.
Informal actors use the money to take care of their families.
“To take them out of this dangerous business, an alternative needs to be proposed that provides a better return than what they get, while at the same time, putting in place clear regulations to disincentive dangerous activities — what I would call a ‘carrot and stick’ approach,” he said.
The case of Rwanda
He cited Rwanda as one of the countries that has effectively formalised these sectors.
“Through targeted legislation and investment prioritisation, Rwanda has set up a first official recycling and refurbishing facility that can process up to 10,000 metric tonnes of e-waste annually,” Mr Munang said.
“And with this, the country is gaining socio-economically and environmentally. Environmentally, the country has mitigated over 2,000 tonnes of carbon. Up to $66 million worth of precious metals are recoverable from this formal recycling, and over 600 jobs have been created. This is just the benefit from one plant.”
Kenya banned the importation of second hand electronic gadgets into the country from January 2020 to protect it from being used as an e-waste dumpsite.
The ban mostly affected electronic gadgets, old computers and laptops by donors and multinationals to schools and other institutions in the country.
The director of environmental education at Kenya’s Ministry of Environment, Ayub Macharia, said the country has been a victim of illegal dumping of e-waste from developed countries.
“We are putting strict regulations to deter imports of obsolete electronics,” he said.
Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority has developed guidelines to streamline the procedures of handling and disposal of e-waste.
The guidelines provide a way to identify, collect, sort, recycle and dispose of electrical and electronic waste.
They also provide the basis for developing legal instruments for enforcement.