East Africa: e-Waste Management Should Be Top Priority at EAC Council of Ministers' Meeting - Expert

Dr Alice A Kaudia, the Environment Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, says a structure should be set up to enable e-Waste data collection and that regional countries should incentivize or pay people bringing the e-Waste some money.

In an interview with Sunday Times’ James Karuhanga on the sidelines of a three-day regional workshop on sustainable e-Waste management recently held in Kigali, Kaudia shared her views on how the region can best manage electronic waste.

Below are the excerpts:

What is electronic or e-Waste, to start with?

Electronic and electric waste is any [used] material that depends, in its operations, on availability of electricity. And it is a big range of products including mobile phones, televisions, and refrigerators and so on. When they stop functioning properly they become electronic waste.

How harmful is it or why do we have to draw strategies?

e-Waste is very harmful because it has different components and some of them are heavy metals like lead which is harmful to human life. It is also harmful if we don’t dispose it off properly because in the process of dismantling, let’s say a TV screen or a fridge, there are certain gases that come out that are harmful to human health.

What then is or should be proper disposal?

It means this kind of waste should be taken to a legally licensed facility which the government has inspected and ensured that it conforms to international standards on how to manage e-Waste.

Apparently, we don’t have enough of such facilities in the region?

I would say that what we visited here in Rwanda, the Enviroserve [Rwanda Green Park] facility, is the best so far. In Kenya we tried but it didn’t work. The overall design of the project was not proper. The investors did not get government approval, because at the end of it even if you are a foreign investor bringing money to our country the safety of our people is important.

Tell me more about the Rwandan facility that you visited last week. What did you appreciate about the whole design and concept?

First of all, there is a local, Rwandan person, leading. It made me feel that whoever has invested had taken into account building local capacity because we don’t want, as Africans, to continually depend on external persons yet we also have our people who have gone to school.

Number two, I found out that the layout of the factory is environment friendly. They have enough natural lighting, the doors were wide open in the event of fire, and I could see that even the people working there had the right gear for work. And I learnt that the metal components that they crush and package are sold to the local industries.

It is good they are recycling locally. You know, elsewhere, some companies come, extract and export; they go and add value in their country and bring back the products to you.

At the beginning of the workshop, I heard that countries in the region have more than 50 tons of e-Waste annually, and probably more, because that figure was from old data. And only 20 percent, we were told, is processed. Yet you, earlier, told me how e-Waste is actually a multibillion dollar business that we should tap…

It is a multibillion dollar business that we should invest in smartly. Some of the [foreign] investors have also told us that if the business is not managed properly you can actually make losses.

But this is normal in any business! You have to manage a business properly so as to have a healthy balance sheet. For me, the key thing really is that you are trying to extend the life of an asset as long as possible, and you want to ensure that anything that might appear as waste can be an input in a secondary level of investment. Aluminum components for example can be processed into aluminum sheets and we create jobs locally if we have these industries in the region.

What about the problem of lack of updated statistics?

That is a major problem hindering investment. When investors come, they want to know the volumes or quantities of e-Waste available. In my view, EAC partner states just need to develop a regional research project then we can have our academic institutions take this as part of their work and collect the date, analyze and give us the information as policy makers to apply.

How do we fail to get this data yet almost every electronic product imported is recorded?

Yes we can have the data of inflows but at what point do they become waste? They are all dispersed in our homes and everywhere in our geographical space. So, to know how many of us are still having the television sets we bought when we were undergraduates or the mobile phones we bought a long time ago, we don’t know.

We need to define a structure that will enable us to collect that information and I think that is very possible if we can incentivize disposal of the waste.

What do you actually mean by incentivize disposal of the waste?

It means that you pay the person bringing the waste some money. It should be something that should encourage people to let go some of the old iron boxes, television, refrigerators, which are so old but still in households.

How was this handled in the workshop?

It didn’t come very strongly as some people were saying ‘why should we require the waste managers to pay for electronic waste when the ordinary waste is just thrown and nobody pays for its disposal?’ That was the argument. But we said electronic waste is special because of the risk it poses to human health and the environment.

How about the case where, five years down the road, I could return my phone to the service provider and get a new one instead of dumping it anywhere?

You see, that can only be if our regulations also include ‘take back’ schemes whereby if it is Samsung that has manufactured the phone, when they have agents in your country, they will clearly define the lifespan of a phone and they will tell you that by the fifth year, your phone can no longer be useful and you can bring it back to us and we pay you for bringing it back because we are able to recover some materials from it. But we can’t do that now because we don’t have the policies, we don’t have the laws, we don’t have the standards, … there is a lot of work to be done.

I think this also has attachments to strong political will at the highest level, to make things happen. Don’t you agree?

That’s why I am saying, this should be an agenda item at the EAC Council of Ministers first so that each country is able to bring its case and it is discussed there and then it goes to the Summit.

The regional e-Waste management strategy somewhere points to a wish to have at least one modern regional facility by 2022. What is your optimism on that?

I am very optimistic on that. Okay, I kept talking about this in the meeting; with the case we saw in Rwanda, and given the sensitivity of how we should handle e-Waste, we could make that [the Rwandan facility] as the regional location. If members agree or if another partner state can mobilize a lot of resources to make us have one whereby we manage all fractions of e-Waste that would be better. First of all it is very expensive.

It requires a very high level of investment to have technology especially to handle the problematic fractions of e-waste which are very dangerous. It is ideally good to have one facility where we can control movements of this waste so that we can’t have every country doing its own.

Any idea how expensive this would be for the region?

Well, if the Rwandan one cost, I think, $1.5 million, I can’t have an exact idea but I imagine we could double or triple that figure. But that really requires a feasibility study and development of a business plan so that you have accurate information and figures. Then, if you have data on volumes generated, you can definitely interest a very good business person.

Your parting shot?

I think we are one country, called the East African Community, and we need to work together for the common good of the people of this region and our environment.

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