5 February 2019

Africa's Growing Economies, Youth Create E-Waste Challenge

Photo: New Times
The e-Waste recycling and dismantling facility.

A new report says the world produces at least 50 million tons of electronic waste each year, and that number is expected to double 30 years from now. The impact of all that electronic junk is especially felt in Africa.

Mobile phones are increasingly common gadgets across Africa. You can get a phone for as little as $10 in the streets of Nairobi.

Most Kenyans, however, don't know how to safely dispose of their old phones when they get a new one.

"I have a spoiled phone. I have kept at home maybe for future use or dispose it one day…mostly if it's not working, I can decide to throw it away. It depends on how it has spoiled. I throw it away,” Winnie says.

It's this kind of behavior that has environmentalists concerned, as many phones, once thrown away, end up in rivers and oceans.

The U.N. Environmental Program estimates that 50 million tons of electronic waste was produced in 2018. It says that number could climb to 120 million tons by the year 2050.

One half of so-called e-waste comprises personal devices like computers, smartphones and tablets.

Simon Omengo uses unorthodox means to dispose of his electronic gadgets.

“Since its motherboard failed then automatically I disposed it. I threw it in the toilet. I burn it, I break into pieces because it’s useless to me now,” Omengo says.

Winnie says the government needs to come up with ways to safely dispose of old devices.

“Our government (needs) to come up with a place where we can take all the gadgets, especially the phones which are spoiled. We go and dispose them there and they will know how they will dispose them, rather than just scattering around because some of the people they just throw them in the dust pin and its hazard to the environment,” Winnie says.

Experts say electronic devices are becoming complicated to repair and some don’t last long.

With more devices being thrown away, one Kenya-based group, Enviroserve, is trying to change how Africa’s e-waste is managed by stripping down re-useable metals and plastics from phones. Some materials remain in Kenya, while other parts like batteries are shipped abroad.

Shaun Mumford, the head of the company, says old phones have been simply dumped in Kenya for years.

"It wasn’t done in a way that is useful, and also it was staying here. So what we are able to do instead of Africa being the dumping ground, which historically been the case, we are able to deal with what makes sense here and send back out of the country things that need to be dealt with properly,” Mumford says.

More than half the population is under the age of 30 and the demand for the latest electronics – and dumping the old ones – is only growing.

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