Kenya needs to take cognizance of this ticking time bomb and step up efforts for electronic waste disposal.
By Dr. JOHN OREDO
The proliferation of digital devices and the services they enable is changing the way we live and interact. For the most part, the use and application of these digital technologies have led to improved quality of life; transforming healthcare, education, banking and even social interactions. The benefits of digital technologies have penetrated the bottom of the pyramid due to the ever-reducing cost of digital devices like computers and mobile phones. According to the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), Kenya had a total of 45.6 million mobile subscribers in 2018, while the number of Internet users was 41.1 million. With the rapid growth in production and use of digital devices, there is a growing concern about the environmental impact of how such technologies are disposed when they reach end-of-life. The handling of electronic waste (e-waste) is therefore becoming a growing concern for both organisations and governments.
E-waste or waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) refers to an electronic equipment or part of it that is deemed hazardous and do not in their functional state serve any purpose to any intending user unless the equipment has been refurbished. Included in the definition of E-waste are second hand products which are exported to developing countries after they have reached their end of life and do not have meaningful use. Most e-waste contain toxic materials such as lead, zinc, nickel, flame retardants, barium and chromium. When these toxic materials make way into the environment and food chain, they can gradually cause negative impacts on the environment and human health. Exposure to e-waste can take place through various routes, including air, water and ingestion resulting from contaminated food.
Kenya’s relationship with e-waste
In Kenya, the ICT industry has been developing exponentially especially due to removal of tax levies on computers, promotion of digital technologies in education, rapid expansion of mobile telephony and launch of e-government strategy, availability of affordable digital devices. According to the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership, Africa generated a total of 2.2 million tonnes of e-waste in 2016 with an e-waste collection rate of 0.1 per cent. In the same year, Kenya generated 38,000 tonnes of e-waste. Data from UNEP’s Africa Waste Management Outlook (2010) indicates that the bulk of e-waste in Kenya emanates from refrigerators (11,400 tonnes), TV sets (2,800 tonnes), printers (500 tonnes) and mobile phones (150 tonnes).
It is expected that with the proliferation of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, the e-waste problem will bulge exponentially. To mitigate the negative consequences, countries must erect mechanisms that ensure sustainable e-waste management. Taking a cue from proponents of sustainable development, we need to manufacture, use and dispose off digital devices in a manner that meets our present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
From an academic perspective, the debate around IT and its impact on the environment goes by the name green computing. The concept of green computing refers to initiatives that aim to improve the environmental sustainability of IT resources right from design, manufacture, use and disposal. While Kenya’s Constitution 2010 under article 42 provides that every Kenyan has the right to a clean and healthy environment, there are still challenges in attaining that aspiration due to threats posed by ineffective e-waste management. According to the UNEP’s report, the challenges include: weak legislation, inadequate civic education and awareness of e-waste opportunities and threats, absence of infrastructure to safely destroy or recycle e-waste, lack of skilled e-waste practitioners, lack of local end-use markets, weak enforcement and monitoring of legislation.
What to do?
To improve e-waste management in Kenya, the government should facilitate the discussion and passing into law of the E-waste Management Bill of 2013 which is still pending. Through this legislation, the government will be able to track data about e-waste collection in terms of tonnage and categories. Lack or little information on e-waste collection rate has been cited as one of the challenges in addressing the problem in developing countries. The National E-Waste Management Strategy Draft 2019 by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry is a step in the right direction. The public should be educated on the opportunities and threats of e-waste. The county governments should take a lead in building infrastructure for e-waste collection and recycling not only as a way of creating employment opportunities for the youth but also as a way of revenue generation. The government must impose heavy financial disincentives or extended producer responsibility as a way of discouraging the importation of high waste generation and low recyclability products. Private Public Partnerships should be encouraged in e-waste management infrastructure investment. The government both at the national and county levels should integrate the Jua Kali sector in e-waste management to tap the sector’s natural recycling capabilities.
Dr. John Oredo is an Information Systems expert and a Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts, University of Nairobi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org