The (E-Waste) monster


Uganda has no program in place to dispose of the country’s growing piles of electronic waste, also called E-Waste. While some private recyclers exist, many venders have resorted to illegally dumping the potentially dangerous waste wherever they can.

Alex runs a shop in Katwe selling electronics. Everywhere one looks in the small cluttered space is a various assortment of radios, flat irons and extension cables, among others. It is not different from any other shop that sells electrical items, with the only exception being the certainty that the items he sells are either second hand, or throw-aways that have been repaired and made to look brand new. When he finds he has accumulated too much electrical garbage, what does he do? Same thing as many Ugandans. Piles it all in a sack, and drives around looking for a place to dump it.

Alex believes that e-waste is not so much an issue of what people are using as what they are not.

“We do not have anywhere to take old electronic items in Uganda,” explained Alex. “So it simply gets mixed with garbage. It is not uncommon to find people using the backs of television  screens here as dustbins. Whatever we sell people will usually work for at least five years, which is understandable since it’s cheaper and second-hand. The problem comes in when items no longer work.”

In May 2010, a ban on the importation of second-hand electronic items came into force. According to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), Uganda had become a dumping ground for dangerously old second-hand electronics whose intricate gadgets, if handled improperly, posed a danger to society. In addition, Ugandans were being cheated into purchasing cheap second-hand equipment with a short shelf life. In the future, this will lead to massive accumulation of second-hand electronic items which will destroy the environment.

And so the ban was passed. This prompted dealers in second-hand items to form a special interest group appealing to the government to find another alternative to handling the problem of e-waste without destroying their businesses.

The Finance Minister Syda Bbumba responded with the statement, “If these dealers can offer concrete solutions to the problem of e-waste, and we as government see that they are viable and sustainable, then the ban will be lifted. Until then, the environment is our number one priority.”

John (not his real name) operates a computer shop along Kampala Road, and reveals that e-waste in the computer world is also a case of not knowing where to dispose of old items.

“Computers keep upgrading and old versions are pushed to the wayside,” he said. “If someone has little money, and wants to purchase a Pentium 1,2 or 3, we will advise them that it is out of date, but we cannot refuse to sell it to them. It is a also a case of getting it off our hands without incurring a loss.”

An example of the danger of e-waste is best applied to large corporations that have huge stores of used and old computers that are no longer useful. Where does this waste go? It is either sold off or disposed of in ways that are harmful to the environment. For instance, a source who chooses to remain anonymous, claimed that management at a large agricultural company digs holes in the ground where they bury whatever machine is no longer functioning.

Improper disposal of any e-waste is dangerous to the environment. Rubbish heaps often contain electronic garbage which children play with. Small tubes and implements also get into the drainage system because of rain.

Evidence discovered by the Kampala Dispatch however, reveals that this issue of e-waste could have been solved as NEMA had been following it up early last year.

According to the Daily Monitor, on April 4th 2010, Henry Aryamanya, the Executive Director of NEMA, promised

Ugandans that NEMA was planning to build a 300 million electronic waste management centre at Namanve Industrial Park.

“We have around 300 million shillings from our environmental fund and we are going to use it to set up the recycling centre,” Dr Aryamanya said in his statement.

According to the director, NEMA was negotiating with Second Life Uganda, a refurbishment and recycling company, to operate the facility. The goal was to have the facility up and running by early 2011. The plant would be used as a storage point for phones, computers, printers and other discarded electronic goods. It would sort goods, recycle and re-export items that can be salvaged and destroy the rest in an environmentally-safe way.

Further research by the Kampala Dispatch has revealed this to be hot air. Although Second Life applied for and was verbally promised a license to manage e-waste in collaboration with NEMA, NEMA reneged on the collaboration and issued Second Life with a license purely to store e-waste instead.

In a letter by Dr. Aryamanya dated 16th February 2011, the reason for this was explained as, “Your proposal was rejected on grounds that it would encourage the continuous importation of second hand computers and other electronic waste and would therefore negate the objectives of the ban.”

In the letter, Dr. Aryamanaya then went on to deny that NEMA and Second Life had a standing agreement to set up any recycling plant whatsoever.

“It is…not correct for you to insinuate that you have failed to carry out business because NEMA has not provided you with funds for your business because NEMA has never committed herself to do that,” wrote Dr. Aryamanaya.

In sharp contrast to Aryamanya’s reason for denying Second Life a license to manage e-waste, the Kampala Dispatch was able to procure a copy of minutes of a meeting held by NEMA’s Committee on Licensing pollution which revealed that the license was denied for completely different reasons. “…a lot of waste that is not re-usable will be generated from the computers and a license for hazardous waste storage was more appropriate.” The minutes read. Currently Second Life will simply collect and store waste until, according to the minutes, “…that waste is exported to the Netherlands (c/o the International Platform for Advanced Recycling- IPAR) where there is sufficient capacity to deal with it.”

According to the above, it is evident that NEMA has no intentions of setting up a recycling plant and would rather

ship e-waste to other countries to benefit from it. Because benefit they will, according to Robert Jan Nieuwpoort, Managing Director of Second Life Uganda.

“People assume that e-waste is not re-usable, which is an error,” explained Nieuwpoort. “E-Waste is waste that cannot be recycled. By managing it, we bring it in to see if it re-usable. If re-used, it is beneficial for the environment. Therefore management of e-waste involves determining if an electronic item is re-usable or if it has reached end of life.”

And what happens if it has reached end of life? Using private funding, Second Life has already built a recycling workshop where these items are dismantled and their different parts effectively utilised.

“This is the complex part of e-waste management. When dismantling an item, lead tubes for instance have to be handled with care because when broken, they are harmful,” said Nieuwpoort. “We then send all aluminium we collect to Shumuk. Iron goes to various recyclers and copper goes to a copper company. We send all plastic to Tanzania, as there is no way to grind it in Uganda.”

The rest goes to Europe, which Nieuwpoort believes is better than sending all e-waste to Europe when it can still benefit the local industries and communities.

“I applied for a license to manage e-waste, not store it!” lamented Nieuwpoort. “This has greatly impeded our ability to operate efficiently in Uganda. All I can do is work with what I have.”

James of Katwe (not his real name) can attest to this. He comes to Second Life to purchase old tubes in their store, which he uses to repair televisions.

“Second Life gives me items on the condition that I return to them what I cannot repair,” said James. “They do not want me to dump anything. They want their e-waste to come back to them because they say that they can dispose of it safely.”

Apart from managing e-waste, a recycling plant in Uganda is something which would be positive for Uganda’s economic development. Close the Gap, a local NGO that donates computers to secondary schools, contracted an external agency to carry out a feasibility study on this. The study advised that a country be chosen in East Africa.

Kampala was suggested as a suitable location being central to Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and other surrounding countries that would export their waste to Kampala.

Currently, East Africa has only one e-waste management recycling plant, the Embakasi Recycling Plant in Kenya, which was just opened in March this year. Information gathered about their operations is exactly similar to what Second Life does. Separation of metals and plastic, sending material to companies that use them, and shipping the toxic material to Norway for recycling. CFSK, the company responsible, has signed a memorandum of co-operation with Kenya’s National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) to develop sustainable models for the management of electronic waste. A familiar story with a more positive outcome. They plan to handle all of East Africa’s e-waste, which may be a relief to Uganda’s NEMA as transportation of e-waste to Kenya, though expensive, is less so than shipping it to the Netherlands.

Unfortunately, NEMA does not seem concerned with even the storage of e-waste for which Second Life was issued a license. Second Life collects e-waste, but it appears that its transportation for ‘fully qualified’ management in the Netherlands may take another year. The committee on Licensing Pollution does not seem to have any individual on the board knowledgeable about Uganda’s e-waste scenario. Of the entire committee, only the head, Mr. Isaac Ntuju, visited Second Life to inspect the property, and he was seen only once.

Kampala Dispatch visited the NEMA offices and attempted numerous times to get a comment from an official but by press time no comment from NEMA had been offered.

With or without government support, Second Life is doing what it can to manage e-waste, and perhaps with time, Uganda will have its own recycling plant, and we can effectively reduce the harmful effects of e-waste. Then electricians such as Alex will not have to covertly dump their e-waste around Kampala. And that would be good for everybody.

By Lindsey Kukunda

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