Scrappy Endeavor

The Global South is a dumping ground for the world’s electronic waste. In Kenya, recyclers are looking to e-waste for resources — and a safer circular economy.

LAURENCE THUO WEAVES IN AND OUT of the numerous stalls run by jua kali (informal blue-collar workers) that pack the alleyways of Ngara Market near Nairobi’s bustling Central Business District. In one, fundis (informally trained technicians) dismantle computer central processing units; in others, they refurbish keyboards and screens, or repair blenders, hair-dryers, and speakers. At some stalls, Thuo cracks jokes with the men and slaps them on the back familiarly. “We don’t have a hierarchy here,” he tells me. “We share resources and information. There’s more than enough to go around.”

It takes a little while to figure out the layout, but a network of stalls in this market makes up the headquarters and many workshops of E-waste Initiative Kenya (E-WIK), an electronic-waste recycling company Thuo founded in 2015. We stop by a stall where a student from Nairobi Technical University bops to K-pop as he probes into the motherboard of a television. “Age distribution is important. Mentorship is critical to how skills are passed on,” Thuo explains.

He speaks from experience. As a child, Thuo had destroyed his dad and grandfather’s radios with a knife, picking them apart out of sheer curiosity about their construction. Throughout high school, he frequented repair workshops — hanging around the fundis and eventually taking up informal apprenticeships. The more he tinkered with hardware, the more ideas on how to recondition abandoned electronics blossomed in his mind. Thuo first started collecting discarded electronics in his home community in Kiambu County, 14 kilometers outside Nairobi, in 2005, when he was 16 years old. Initially, he went door-to-door, taking unwanted units off of people’s hands to either refurbish or salvage for parts. Over the years, he developed a distribution system selling refurbished electronics to a demographic that otherwise could not afford such equipment. It did not take long for folks to start coming to Thuo, either with their discards or to purchase a cell phone, computer, or other electronic item. Once his venture coalesced into E-WIK in 2015, some even wanted to join him and learn to do what he does.

Over the past few decades, e-waste recycling has created economic opportunity for many local enterprises in the Global South.

In a society with high unemployment rates, Thuo’s venture offers income to many. Formal training isn’t required to become an excellent fundi who can dismantle a motherboard or build transformers with ease. George Njau, the company’s chairman, for instance, can fix about three laptops a day, nearly 90 units any given month.

“Even now, some people don’t believe that there is money in this business, but I’ve lived off of waste for 15 years and have trained hundreds of people on how to do the same,” Thuo says. “We need to start seeing waste as a resource.”

While consumer electronics represents less than 1 percent of Kenya’s municipal solid waste, these materials hold the highest potential for rebirth. A motherboard, for example, contains gold and rare earth materials.

Indeed, over the past few decades, e-waste recycling has created economic opportunity for many local enterprises in the Global South, especially in sub-Saharan countries like Kenya and Nigeria, or Asian nations like India, Pakistan, and China. A significant portion of this waste, however, is not being generated in these countries. Thanks to globalization and supply chain economics, it is being shipped from the Global North to poorer nations where environmental regulations are laxer and labor is cheaper. (The US, for instance, exports up to 40 percent of its e-waste.)

Backyard recyclers in Ghana. Over the past few decades, e-waste has been flowing from the Global North to South. Much of this waste is treated in “factories” that are often simply shacks or in homes or backyards, where recyclers break, burn, leach, and melt e-waste to convert it into secondary raw materials. Photo by Takao K.

Laurence Thuo, founder of E-WIK, believes we need to start seeing e-waste as a resource and provide the informal e-waste industry the resources it needs to operate in an environmentally sound manner. “I’ve lived off of waste for 15 years and have trained hundreds of people on how to do the same,” he says.

A E-WIK staffer rummages through massive bags of ​dismantled electronics at a company warehouse.

In most of these Global South countries, the e-waste management infrastructure is not yet fully developed or, in some cases, is entirely absent. Hence, e-waste is managed mostly by the informal sector, by businesses like Thuo’s. Which means the majority of this waste, which may include hazardous materials, is handled under potentially unsafe conditions given the lack of official, uniform regulations, and can have severe health impacts on workers and the environment. The economic opportunity that e-waste offers, therefore, also brings along with it a gnarly web of environmental justice and public health challenges that local and global e-waste regulators are grappling with.

THE NUMBERS SURROUNDING e-waste are astounding. In 2019, we humans created some 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste worldwide, up 21 percent in just five years, according to the United Nations’ Global E-waste Monitor 2020. “For perspective, last year’s e-waste weighed substantially more than all the adults in Europe,” the report notes. By 2030, global e-waste will reach 74 million metric tons, making it “the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, fueled mainly by higher consumption rates of electric and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few options for repair.”

Recycling activities are not keeping pace with this rapid growth of e-waste. The report found that only 17.4 percent of 2019’s e-waste was recycled. The rest was either tossed into landfills or incinerated. “This means that gold, silver, copper, platinum, and other high-value, recoverable materials conservatively valued at US $57 billion — a sum greater than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries — were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse,” the report says.

Electronic junk accounts for only 2 percent of debris in landfills but contributes two-thirds of heavy metal toxins, making it one of the main contributors to toxic leaching. These metals break down in the soil, emitting dangerous gases that are harmful to humans and the environment.

One would assume that recycling and repurposing this waste would help prevent some of this pollution. But most e-waste recycling, as it is done right now, isn’t environmentally friendly either.

Most e-waste recycling, as it is done now, isn’t environmentally friendly.

The recycling process involves dismantling electronics into component materials or extracting metals for resale. This can be a source of toxic chemical pollution. Some of these products, such as printed circuit boards and batteries, can contain more than 1,000 different substances, including hazardous heavy metals like mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, and other toxins like flame retardants. Compounds found in this waste have been linked to strong neuro-developmental and behavioral impacts, especially in children. Studies have also linked exposure to e-waste chemicals and fumes to “inflammation and oxidative stress,” which in turn could lead to “cardiovascular diseases, DNA damage, and cancer.”

While developed countries generally use well-equipped e-recycling facilities with uniform safety protocols, increasing regulatory requirements in these nations make recycling expensive. The price of manpower also directly impacts the thoroughness of the recycling process. In a country like Kenya, where labor is jaw-droppingly cheap in comparison to countries like Germany or Sweden, every bit of value can be extracted from end-of-life units.

Over the past few decades, this has led to an international movement of e-waste (and of all “recyclable” waste, actually) from the Global North to South. Much of this waste is treated in “factories” that are often simply shacks or in homes or backyards, where recyclers break, burn, leach, and melt e-waste to convert it into secondary raw materials.

“This ‘backyard recycling’ is causing a lot more damage to the environment,” says Berrin Tansel, a professor of environmental engineering at Florida International University who is researching the public health impact of e-waste recycling. “Recovering the metals in e-waste, for example, takes so many different types of acids and other chemicals that by the time you extract very small amounts of metal you’ve probably generated thousands of kilograms of toxic waste.”

Nicky Gregson, a geographer at Durham University who specializes in waste economies, describes the dynamics of the waste trade as “reverse imperialism.”

“The late nineteenth-century saw economies, chiefly in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, being developed such that they serviced the higher value manufacturing economies of Europe, mainly by becoming resource economies,” she says. “For me, the global waste trade has echoes of this arrangement, but in reverse, in that many of these same economies are now the destination for the production and consumption wastes of the ex-imperial powers of the Global North.”

However, these materials are both wastes and resources, she points out. They can remain in the production cycle as dismantled components and raw materials and can thus be used to boost developing economies. While the social and environmental burdens of such trading are unevenly distributed between the Global North and South, in many ways e-waste represents opportunity. Handled correctly, it offers the possibility of building a true circular economy.

ACCORDING TO THE UNITED National Environment Programme (UNEP), Kenya now generates over 44,000 tons of e-waste annually. In 2008, the volume was 2,984 tons, according to the Kenya Information and Communications Technology Action Network. Thanks to growing mobile phone and computer use, there’s been an influx of cheap, new but short-life e-products, mainly from Asia, in recent years.

A significant amount of Kenya’s e-waste ends up in places like Dandora Dump, Kenya’s biggest landfill, which stretches 30 acres in the middle of Nairobi’s poorest slum.

Kenya now generates over 44,000 tons of e-waste annually. Thanks to growing mobile phone and computer use, there’s been an influx of cheap, new but short-life e-products, mainly from Asia, in recent years.

Eric Guantai of Recykla International says the informal waste sector is “totally off the map” for government regulators and policymakers.

Since many Kenyans are unable to afford new devices, the demand for even cheaper second-hand electronics is high as well. A significant portion of the country’s e-waste, therefore, stems from these secondhand products donated by developed nations, many of which are close to the end of their lifespan.

Eric Guantai of Recykla International, another unlicenced e-waste company, is a close friend of Thuo. They both explained that the volume of e-waste in the country is likely significantly higher than the UNEP estimate, which relies on sourcing that often miscategorizes e-waste as hazardous materials rather than raw materials or refurbishable units.

Guantai says researchers and governments have continuously refused to perform the documentation required to recognize the informal sector. “We are totally off the map as a point of reference,” says Guantai, who also serves as the current vice-secretary of Kenya’s National Steering Committee on e-waste for Kenya. “Last December, a fire burned through Ngara. Without insurance, we had to rebuild from the ground up ourselves.”

IN RECENT YEARS, there have been some efforts to improve the legal and infrastructural framework for e-waste management in developing nations in Asia and Africa. According to Global E-waste Monitor 2020, there are currently 19 countries with legally binding legislation on e-waste across these two continents, five countries with an e-waste policy but non-legally binding legislation, and 31 countries, including Kenya, with policy in development.

Kenya’s draft e-waste regulation, which was first formulated in 2013, includes proposals for an electrical and electronic registry by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) that would capture data on electronics entering the country and help curb the entry of low-lifespan products. The bill also includes an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) document under which electronics producers would have a significant responsibility — financial and/or physical — for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products. Assigning such responsibility could, in principle, incentivize manufacturing companies to prevent wastes at the source, promote environmentally friendly product design, and support recycling goals.

But the legislation has been languishing in Parliament for nearly eight years; it faces stiff criticism from the informal e-waste sector for failing to address their needs as it circumvents unlicensed players altogether.

Thuo, who has been actively engaged with UNEP, NEMA, and all the big players for decades, understands the politics well. “The challenge here is that the informal sector won’t benefit from EPR resources,” he says. Specifically, the EPR protocol envisions a central, symbiotic hub for producers to put in money and resources, including insurance coverage, that recyclers make use of. However, the bill doesn’t extend access to these resources to unaccredited e-waste companies, even though the jua kali process some 75 percent of Kenya’s e-waste.

Low labor costs for repair and refurbishment have led to a strong electronic reuse market in Kenya.

As major players in the informal e-waste sector in Kenya, Thuo and Guantai were asked to review and contribute to the draft bill. In addition to access to EPR resources, their recommendations included giving the informal sector the means to process different types of e-waste (E-WIK, for instance, lacks a crusher and cannot dispose of computer monitor shells on its own), creating an accessible platform for the sector to better connect with the e-waste supply chain, optimizing the business environment for efficiency and minimal bureaucratic hold ups (a main barrier for formally recognized e-waste handlers, such as WEEE Centre), pushing for electrical and electronics producers to eschew planned obsolescence, and developing Kenya’s own electronics manufacturing capacity in order to reduce dependence on foreign imports.

But they say their concerns and recommendations aren’t being taken into consideration. Ultimately, financial muscle influences the process: Prohibitively expensive documentation and licensing still stand as requirements for recognition and coverage under upcoming policies, they say. “Folks at NEMA refused to even visit our facilities at Ngara,” Thuo says. “The government does not consider us as legitimate.”

Kenyan politicians and regulators tend to model their policies after EU countries’ waste and refurbishing plans, Guantai adds. “They want to benchmark with Europe, but they’re out of touch with what’s happening on the ground.” Hence, he says, Kenya’s policies end up not being adaptable to local dynamics.

Ayub Macharia, director of Environmental Awareness and Education at Kenya’s environment ministry, says that the EPR provision — now scheduled to be passed this April — will benefit all players in the e-waste scene, including informal workers. “The role of the EPR is to put in place regulations and manage everything slipping [through the cracks],” he told me. “It’s all about the post-consumer management of waste … The sooner it’s passed, the better.”

But Guantai still maintains that the benefits of the agreement may not extend to the informal sector. “At the end of the day, the EPR is about formalizing institutions. The jua kali are not licensed.”

And then there’s the import of e-waste from abroad, both legal shipments and underground. Since 2005, several studies have exposed illegal export of e-waste from developed nations to Africa, predominantly Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana. This cross-border transfer often takes place through middlemen, under false tariff classifications, resulting in poor tracking of the quantities being imported. Thuo says it’s what happens when the policies in place are too bureaucratic and expensive. “People are forced to take short cuts,” he says. As optimistic as he is about the resource potential of e-waste imports, Thuo admits that “sometimes, what we get is simply trash.”

As with many other developing nations, a lack of both uniform waste-processing protocols and adequate processing facilities across Kenya complicates safe disposal or reuse of e-waste.

There needs to be some kind of regulatory requirement that products be made in a way that they are easier to dismantle into component parts, says researcher Berrin Tansel.

Only about 1 percent or less of Kenya’s e-waste is managed by the country’s handful of licensed e-waste recycling centers, including the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Centre in Nairobi, which is supported by corporate and government partners, including the European Commission and the Kenyan Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources. The rest is either handled by the country’s large, informal recycling sector or ends up in places like Dandora Dump, Kenya’s biggest landfill, which stretches 30 acres in the middle of Nairobi’s poorest slum.

Waste-collectors — men, women, children — pick through the massive piles of smoldering trash at dumps like Dandora for everything from discarded electronics to plastics that they can sell to fundis at Ngara Market and elsewhere. These collectors too, are a key component of the recycling industry, but they are also its most marginalized and vulnerable stakeholders.

E-scrap collectors are currently regulated under both the country’s hazardous and solid waste laws, and are often looked down upon as rubbish rooters. Recognizing the contributions of the informal sector would go a long way in changing that perception, Thuo says.

“What we do here is legitimate; we process far more e-waste than places like WEEE Centre,” Thuo says. “Many times, people would rather come to us because WEEE oftentimes refuses to process [small amounts like] a household’s worth of units. They have [to deal with a lot of] paperwork and protocols; it’s not worth it for them to collect just one microwave.”

While official, licensed facilities may have safer protocols, they simply don’t have the capacity to handle the volume of waste that the informal sector processes.

Thuo and other stakeholders in Kenya’s informal e-waste recycling sector have been seeking official recognition of their enterprises, which they say would provide them the support and resources to create safer working conditions and minimize environmental harm. Thuo often clashes with people in positions of political power over this. “I had a tussle with someone from the UN the other day. He did not believe that repurposing or refurbishing without a license held any validity.” Official acknowledgment that their work is legitimate would also open doors for international donors to fund the backbone of e-waste management in Kenya.

Guantai says that a critical strategy in driving the e-waste sector forward is to take advantage of the symbiotic pairing of waste generators and waste processors. “When the circular economy is truly embraced, there’s no way you can put the informal sector away,” he says.

ONE OF THE FIRST STEPS towards building a circular economy, Thuo and Guantai stress, is seeing e-waste as “raw material” rather than “waste.” This, they say, would catalyze a shift in mindset that would help people see these materials as viable resources. The argument isn’t without merit, especially when you recall that the value of selected raw materials in e-waste in 2019 was about $57 billion.

Such a revision of terminology, however, might not be that easy. The distinction of whether something is waste or not, and therefore intended for reuse, has been the subject of much debate under the 1989 Basel Convention, which bans the transboundary movement of hazardous waste, but not waste that’s categorized as “reusable.” Although the most recent UN climate conference adopted, on an interim basis, revised technical guidelines on e-waste and how it can be classified, a final consensus has still not been reached concerning the definition of such waste.

Tansel, the environmental engineering professor at Florida, however, believes the change needs to begin much earlier — at the source — before a gadget or appliance becomes waste. There needs to be some kind of regulatory requirement or incentive that products be made in a way that they are easier to dismantle into component parts, she says. Right now, the opposite is happening. “People want to purchase gadgets that are small,” she says. “Most electronic circuits today are printed. You cannot separate the parts because they basically become one piece. They are becoming so compact that it’s almost impossible to differentiate between what’s the plastic and what’s the metal.”

To build a circular economy “we have to close the loop,” Tansel says. “Right now it’s a one-way street.”

To build a circular economy “we have to close the loop,” Tansel says. “Right now it’s a one-way street.” One way towards reaching that goal, she says, is to imagine and build a product-dismantling chain that is as robust as the global supply chain for producers. That chain would require collaboration with all the industry stakeholders.

The good news is, there has been some movement on this front. Global E-waste Monitor 2020 reports that since 2017 “more and more e-waste-related policies, legislations, and resulting regulations are also considering more upscale design and production aspects — no longer focusing on the purely curative waste management aspects.”

The bad news is, the “movement” is very slow and filled with roadblocks. But, as Tansel says, “We will have to go through this depressing cycle” [of trashing the planet while managing our trash] “to get to the solution.”

Meanwhile back at E-WIK, Thuo, is in the middle of self-financing a brand-new “E-Waste Academy” in Kiambu on family land. He envisions it being a hub where community members can gather to not only learn about e-waste, but also develop other technical, artisanal, and creative skills like carving drinking containers from cattle horns and stewing wild plums into jam. For him, his work in e-waste is just as much about building a sustainable community as it is about technical innovation. And despite all the hurdles, Thuo maintains that the path forward leads upwards: “This is our chance to grow the Kenyan economy while dealing with urgent environmental and community-scale social issues.”

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