Recycling firms dealing in electronic goods that have been operating informally are eyeing a new income stream as the Government moves to regulate the handling of e-waste.
This comes as Kenya’s enters a new regulatory regime, with guidelines that are meant to steer the formation of a new policy to manage electronic waste.
The unregulated disposal of e-waste—with containing toxic elements that can persist for centuries — is particularly alarming given the expected rise in volumes in the next decade.
Computers for Schools Kenya (CFSK) is a non-governmental organisation that has been refurbishing and selling computers to schools at below-market prices.
The organisation is now looking at going commercial, buoyed by the high e-waste volumes and incentives anticipated from a regulated environment.
“Currently, nobody in the country has the capacity to recycle or extract valuable components from certain electronic parts like computer mother-boards and CRT monitors found in televisions and bulky computers,” said Mr Seth Munyambu, the officer in charge of e-waste recycling at CFSK. “We are seeking strategic partners to expand our operations across the region.”
He said that the firm is planning to acquire a machine for recycling heavy duty plastics and CRT monitors at a cost of Sh15 million and Sh215 million respectively.
CFSK has been exporting such e-waste materials back to manufacturers in developed markets who only pay for freight costs.
The organisation says the machines can make glass table tops — among other products — from e-waste.
The lack of a strong policy has partly contributed to low investment in e-waste recycling, leading to inefficient and unhealthy tear-down of items by informal workshops or scavengers.
Mr Malwa Langwen, the director Compliance and Enforcement at the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) said foreign investors have expressed interest in setting up facilities to recycle electronic goods in Kenya, but the lack of legal backing to guarantee volumes has been a major barrier.
The new guidelines, expected to be transformed into enforceable laws in the next 12 to 18 months, hope to create a monetary-based incentive structure to speed up recycling and proper e-waste disposal.
Manufacturers and large ICT goods consumers like the government and learning institutions will provide their e-waste to a new organisation that will pay them a price for the collections.
The collection agency, technically referred to as Producer Responsibility Organisation, will then sell the e-waste to recyclers who are expected to earn from trade in recycled items or valuable components extracted from them.
The commercialisation of e-waste is expected to motivate more consumers to sell off their obsolete electronics.
A spot check by Business Daily found that small electronic repair shops are sitting on hundreds of items that are beyond repair.
The owners of the shops are yet to get wind of the impending regulations though Nema plans to launch a public education campaign focusing on e-waste.
Once enacted, the regulations will formalise e-waste recycling, thus any investor wishing to recycle electronics will have to get approval and the necessary licences from Nema.
“We have a working relationship with Nema but once the e-waste policy becomes law, we will be obliged to get a formal licence,” Mr Munyambu said.
The new policy is expected to formalize the recycling business that has remained in the hands of small players who have little expertise, capital and often work without protective gears, leaving them exposed to dangerous elements such as lead and mercury embedded in electronic items .
Informal recyclers will come under pressure from the entry of big recyclers and regulations to ensure safety standards are observed.
Analysts however say that more jobs will be created once e-waste recycling replicates the success seen in plastics and metals.
For instance, more people will be employed to collect, transport, store, and recycle the e-waste.
Nema said it will issue special licences for the transportation and storage of electronic gadgets, given their toxic nature, a move that would provide new opportunities for transporters, and owners of warehouses.
The guidelines provide for an additional tax on imported electronics to help fund their recycling and proper handling at the end of their life.
“The fees have not yet been decided. We however project small fees of between two to five per cent of the retail price as the volumes will be high. We want to be sure that every electronic item entering the country or manufactured locally will be properly handled at the end of its life,” Mr Langwen said.
This means that consumers will pay more at the retail level to help meet the cost of a clean environment.
A mobile phone that used to sell at Sh15,000 could see a price rise of between Sh300 to Sh750.
Computers and television sets made using extended (CRT) screens will attract a higher levy as recycling them is more expensive.
Electronics manufacturers are also set to meet the cost of setting up the collection agency, a move that is likely to raise operational costs in the near term.
Despite the implications on costs and sales, major multinationals with a presence in Kenya -- including Microsoft and Nokia -- are supporting the two proposals.
“Our business is making mobile phones but we are very clear that we have a responsibility in the way we run it, to respect the environment and act ethically. We look across the whole life-cycle of the phone and aim to reduce environmental impacts in all phases,” said Mr Kenneth Oyolla, the general manager at Nokia East and Southern Africa.
“Recycling cost forms one part of the price definition, but Nokia does not believe it will have significant implications to the final retail prices,” he added.
The regulator is also considering adding take-back fees directly on prices of items to motivate consumers to take their old or damaged electronics to collection centres.
The take- back fee, which is yet to be decided, will however be refunded upon delivery of defective items at retail stores or other designated collection centres.
Alternatively, consumers can buy new items at a discount in lieu of refunds. Nokia and CFSK are some of the few firms that have rolled out take-back policies.
Analysts say that the ability to recoup part of the retail price will encourage more consumers to hand over their defective goods to retail stores.
Consumers who bought items before the new law comes into effect will however not be eligible for the refunds or discounts but are expected to sell their assets at higher prices than in the past.
The take- back fee is set to push up the value and competition for defective goods which informal repair shops have been taking from consumers for free or at throw away prices.
Open garbage sites
There has not been a differentiation between e-waste and other categories of waste material.
This has seen the dumping of e-waste in open garbage sites, leading to dangerous chemicals seeping into the environment, threatening animal and plant life.
Scavengers and informal recyclers seeking valuable components in discarded items have also been exposed to the dangerous elements.
Mercury used in thermostats, sensors and switches, is very toxic to aquatic organisms.
Its inhalation may cause long term damage to human kidneys and central nervous system.
The increased uptake of technology, low initial cost, and constant replacement or upgrade of gadgets have been blamed for the fast generation of e-waste in Kenya.
According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the annual generation of e-waste in Kenya stands at 11,400 tonnes from refrigerators, 2,800 tonnes from TVs, 2,500 tonnes from personal computers, 500 tonnes from printers and 150 tonnes from mobile phones.
Disposal of e-waste
Disposal of e-waste will be done in specialised land fills identified by Nema and local authorities.
The environmental body has ruled out incineration of e-waste, citing lack of proper incineration facilities.
Nema will team up with the ministries of Environment, Local Government, Kenya Bureau of Standards, Kenya Revenue Authority, and the Communications Commission of Kenya to enforce the new e-waste regulations once they are gazetted.