Mobile phone e-waste is a ticking time bomb in Africa

Cheap, short-life gadgets imported with no take-back policy wind up in dumpsites

It will soon be 'easier to net a mobile phone component than fish' in the ocean

Some 53 million new mobile handsets were shipped to sub-Saharan Africa in the past three months, averaging slightly more than half a million daily.

On the bright side, this finding by global data agency Statista points to improving mobile phone penetration, easing communication in the region that has some of the world’s poorest countries.

However, the high number of low-life mobile phone handsets is breeding a health and environmental crisis due to a poor or lack of clear electronic waste policies in Africa.

This is worrying environmentalists, who fear that a huge pile of mobile phone waste could soon spark a menace similar to that of plastic waste.

Environmentalist James Wakibia is concerned it will soon be easier to net a component of a mobile phone device in the Indian Ocean or Lake Victoria than a fish.

"Without a clear policy to manage e-waste, it will soon become an environmental time bomb and all efforts to manage it in the best way should be employed," Wakibia said.

He added that proper infrastructure must be put in place to handle e-waste to stop it from ending up in landfills where in most instances it is burnt, releasing toxic fumes that can be a public health concern.

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep), e-waste management has become a major challenge facing many African countries because of lack of awareness, environmental legislation and limited financial resources.

"Open dumping, burning and landfilling are the predominant disposal methods used in Africa, with potentially serious implications for human health and the environment," Unep said.

A recent survey by Unep found Kenya generates more than 44,000 tonnes of e-waste annually. This as more low-life mobile phone handsets continue to trickle in the country. 

CHEAP IS EXPENSIVE

According to the Communication Authority (CA), the high rate of e-waste accumulation in Kenya is caused by the influx of cheap, short-life products mainly from Asian countries. In 2016, for example, $5.5 billion worth of Chinese phones were shipped into the country. 

Latest data from the government agency puts mobile penetration at 119.9 per cent, meaning that at least 50 million Kenyans own a mobile phone. This figure could be higher, considering that some people own more than one handset.

Besides posing environmental challenges, a study released by Science Direct shows that hazardous compounds found in e-waste have strong neurodevelopmental and neuro-behavioural effects, especially in children.

It indicated that chemicals found in electric waste are associated with decreased intelligence and impaired cognitive functioning.

Private toxicologist Jared Mokua is afraid that harmful chemicals, especially from phone batteries, are finding themselves into water bodies, soil and in the open air, adding to already worse toxicity.

He said most phone batteries are made of Li-Ion, which is highly inflammable and poisonous. 

"Mobile phones have become part of our lifestyle. Most households have no clear plan of disposing of damaged phones. This exposes family members especially to a host of potentially corrosive chemicals," Mokua said. 

He advised families to store e-waste separately and stop dumping or burning it.

A recent study carried out by researchers at NBC Defence and Tsinghua University, China, found that fire caused by overheating, damage or using a disreputable charger with Li-Ion battery can produce more than 100 toxic gases, including carbon monoxide.

In 2016, Samsung was forced to recall Samsung Galaxy Note 7 after a series of explosions linked to hazards Lithium-ion (Li-Ion) used in billions of smartphones.

Most of these Samsung phones started leaking out smoke and eventually caught fire, causing first-degree burns to several users across the world.

Other phone makers have faced the battery problem. Nokia phones powered by Li-Ion battery started exploding in 2007, forcing the Finnish company to replace batteries in more than 46 million devices.

US-based Dell had to recall some 4.1 million laptops in 2006 for similar reasons.

 TOXIC COMPONENTS

Environmental experts say e-waste can contain more than 1,000 different substances, many of which are toxic.

They can comprise heavy metals, for example, mercury, lead, cadmium and chromium, and flame retardants, including polybrominated biphenyls, polychlorinated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

Although no death has been directly linked to the effects of mobile phones or e-waste, it adds to rising concerns about pollution.

The Environment ministry reports that five million Kenyans living in major cities and towns are directly exposed to toxic emissions.

This is mainly from motor vehicles, industries, use of traditional fuels and kerosene used for cooking and heating. Indiscriminate burning of solid waste also causes air pollution.

Air pollution causes death and increased illnesses such as respiratory ailments, heart conditions, brain damage and cancers.

It is estimated that 14,300 Kenyans die annually due to conditions attributed to air pollution. 

Yet, the Kenyan government seems not to care. E-waste draft Bill 2013 has been on parliamentary shelves for nearly a decade now.

Some of the proposals in the draft Bill include the formation of an electrical and electronic registry by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema).

The registry would capture the amount and details of electrical equipment entering the country every year in order to curb the entry of low lifespan products in the country.

The Bill also wanted producers of electric materials to support the financing of collection and treatment of e-waste.

This would be done by the licensed treatment facility to ensure effective take-back and treatment of e-waste.

Parties would be engaged within their relevant product category and on the basis of their market share.

Almost a decade later, however, no phone-making firm has introduced a take-back policy in the country, with users forced to dispose of phone batteries and other accessories anyhow.  

Efforts to get a comment from mobile phone firms operating in Kenya on their effort to contain e-waste hit a snag, with most of them referring us to their global offices. 

GLOBAL CRISIS

The mobile or generally electronic waste menace is not limited to Kenya. It is a global crisis.

An average of 30 million pieces of smartphones are shipped to sub-Saharan Africa every three months, according to Statista. Most batteries in those devices have lifespans of not more than two years.

This means at least 120 million phones imported to the continent last year will be obsolete next year. Most of them will be thrown in common dumpsites or stored at home. 

A review of e-waste management papers in Africa shows that South Africa, Rwanda and Uganda are some of the countries in the region that have taken many steps in managing e-waste through active legislation. 

As of 2019, 78 countries around the world were covered by e-waste legislation, policies and regulation. This accounted for approximately 71 per cent of the world's population. However, less than half of all countries are covered by such initiatives.

The global volume of electronic waste is expected to grow by 33 per cent in the next four years, when it will weigh the equivalent of eight of the great Egyptian pyramids, according to the UN's Step Initiative report.

The UN's Global E-waste Monitor 2017 estimates that every person in the world has at least 6.1kg of electronic waste to dispose of today.

This figure is expected to grow to 6.8kg per person in 2021, enough to fill 10,510 buildings the size of Times Tower in Nairobi, which is 140m tall.

Research shows that phones contain precious metals. The circuit board can contain copper, gold, zinc, beryllium and tantalum. The coatings are typically made of lead and phone makers are now increasingly using lithium batteries.

Yet, fewer than 10 per cent of mobile phones are dismantled and reused. Part of the problem is that computers, phones and other devices are becoming increasingly complex and made of smaller and smaller components.

The failure to recycle is also leading to shortages of rare-earth minerals to make future generations of electronic equipment. Ironically, most of those minerals are excavated in Africa, hence a double environmental tragedy. 

A case in point is coltan mining in Congo, which has led to social strife and rendered several indigenous trees and animals extinct. 

Niobium and tantalum are extracted from coltan, with tantalum specifically playing a key role in the electronics industry.

It is used to make capacitors, surface acoustic wave filters for sensors and touch screen technologies, hard disk drivers and LED lights.

A few private e-waste management companies are, however, emerging to help correct the mess.  

Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment Centre, located in Mihango on the outskirt of Nairobi, has the capacity to process 200 tonnes of e-waste per month, but it receives only 20-25 tonnes monthly.

This is a tiny fraction of the almost 4,000 tonnes the country produces each month.

Formed in 2007, the firm has handled more than 5,000 tonnes of e-waste from over 800 companies and individuals, and these are received through a network of more than 100 collection centres in Kenya.

WEEE general manager Bonnie Mbithi told this writer in a past interview that e-waste crisis in the country is fuelled by poor government policies, especially on importation. 

"Although Kenya is one of few countries in Africa developing e-waste regulations, action, more than paperwork and boardroom talks, is needed urgently," Mbithe said.