E-WASTE: An emerging environmental challenge in the contemporary Uganda

E-waste pilled up in storage due to lack of disposal opportunities
E-waste pilled up in storage due to lack of disposal opportunities

Defining the Concept of E-Waste

E-waste or electronic waste is an informal name for electronic products which have reached or are nearing the end of their useful life. It is a generic term embracing various forms of electrical and electronic equipment that have ceased to be of any significant value to their users.

E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste flows worldwide. The high pace of technological change, the rapid innovation of products innovations, especially in information and computer technology (ICT) and office equipment and the drop in prices have contributed to an exponential growth of the market for electronic products. This increasing quantity of electronic equipment in use will eventually end up as e-waste to be disposed of.

Nature and Scope of the E-Waste Problem in Uganda

The 6th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention (2002) recognized that the issue of management of e-waste requires urgent attention especially in the developing world, of which Uganda is part.

Large quantities of used and end-of-life electronic wastes are being exported into Uganda for the purpose of reuse, repair, refurbishment, recycling and recovery of non-ferrous and precious metals at facilities that do not always operate in an environmentally friendly manner.

Most initiatives in Uganda designed to manage e-waste have focused on computer and computer accessories. However, mobile phones, audio and audio-visual discards nowadays exceed the tonnage of computer wastes.

The zero tax policy on importation of computers introduced in Uganda in 2007 encouraged an influx of second-hand computers into the country, most of which are obsolete and their useful life is only 3-5 years. This has the effect of increasing e-waste volumes as well as the management costs.

There is a rapidly increasing computer market in Uganda as a result of the government’s policy to improve ICT and fight computer illiteracy in the country. However, there are no specific procedures for managing electronic waste within the country. Although the magnitude of the e-waste generation in Uganda cannot be stated with precision, the lack of a definite e-waste management policy and absence of disposal facilities for e-waste and hazardous materials in general within the country remains a subject of concern.

When e-waste is disposed of or recycled without any controls, there are the predictable negative impacts on the environment and human health. E-waste contains more than 1,000 different substances, many of which are toxic, such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, hexavalent chromium, and flame retardants that create dioxins emissions when burned.

The value of ordinary metals contained in e-waste is also very high. : 1 ton of e-waste for example contains up to 0.2 tons of copper, which can be sold for about US $1,000 at the current world price. Recycling e-waste has the potential therefore to be an attractive business.

Although Uganda is one of the least urbanized countries in the world in absolute terms, the urban population is growing. Beginning from below one million in 1969, the urban population increased to around 3 million in 2002 (UBOS 2002). The urban population is also growing faster (3.7 per cent) than the national average of 3.4 per cent (UBOS, 2002).

The growth in the urban population means that pollution issues such as solid waste management, and the provision of adequate safe water and acceptable levels of sanitation coverage will have to be addressed.

Roughly 300,000 computers are thrown out each year. This is by all standards a large figure. There is need for a policy to guide management of all this e-waste. They could be recycled or refurbished to prolong their useful life. The best way of refurbishing them safely and responsibly is to take them to a specialized and professional recycling agent. They will safely remove all your personal information and then manage the rest of the process.

Note that it is illegal to dispose of this stuff to the landfill because electronics contain toxic heavy metals which may contaminate water and/or soil, thus bringing hazardous effect on the environment and human health.

Working computers can also be donated to highly rated charities, which will give them to organizations such as institutions of learning, business firms and charities.

Arrangements could also be made to return obsolete computers to producers willing to recycle them. For example Dell offers free recycling services to anyone recycling Dell computer equipment.

Fridges are another e-waste item that adds up quickly. They are a significant part of the e-waste that is being generated in Uganda each year. Working items can be handled by the Second Life while others may be donated to a local charity. Non-working items can be handled by recycling agents such as Shumuk to produce valuable metal components.

Also unused televisions are stored in closets, attics and garages all across the country. Working cable-ready models can be donated. All other TVs could be recycled, although at the moment we have no any systematized way of recycling TVs so the challenge is real.

Generation and distribution patterns

The main stakeholders in e-waste generation and management are the manufacturers, distributors/importers, refurbishment centers, consumers, collectors, recyclers, policy makers and policy implementers. There is no computer manufacturing industry in Uganda. Computers are imported as whole and in isolated cases are imported in parts and then assembled, although not at full commercial basis.

However it appears that since the introduction of the ‘zero tax policy’ on importation of computers, Uganda customs officials do not put emphasis on the numbers of second-hand computers. Thus it is estimated that the amount of imported second-hand computers is considerably higher than reflected in the customs numbers.

In addition, inconsistencies in the taxation of computer-related components contrary to this policy have been reported. Unassembled computer parts tend to attract taxes while assembled computers are zero-rated. In 2011 for instance, companies imported a total of 12,056 computers representing, 42 per cent of all the imports in that year.

According to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) there is no formal collection of e-waste in Uganda. Informal collection of junk computers (e-waste material) exists. Individuals buy old computers at a cost of approximately US $20. These are not formal companies, but individuals who survive on selling scrap from old computers.

There exists two categories of computer refurbishing industries in Uganda: the formal and informal refurbishing industries. The informal industry appears to be well developed to the extent that a big percentage of computers in Uganda have a second or even several usage times. The major informal refurbishing centers are summarized in the following table.


The following recommendations are made for stakeholders in e-waste generation, distribution and management including the several Government Ministries and parastatals such as NEMA, UWA, Policy Makers, Policy Implementers, Industries, Academia and Environmental Organizations and any other relevant actors in the area of e-waste management;

  • Public–private partnership in the management of e-waste.
  • Education and awareness about the need for careful and environmentally sensitive e-waste management.
  • E-waste should be sorted at source. For instance, local authorities should require that e-waste is collected and disposed off separately from other solid wastes by the e-waste collectors.
  • NEMA should set training standards for personnel handling e-waste to be enforced by the local authorities. Awareness and training programs for staff should be developed and implemented.
  • The ministry responsible for environment and NEMA should encourage the growth and expansion of the recycling capabilities to avoid the high cost of shipping the e-waste back overseas under the principle of EPR – Extended Producer Responsibility.
  • NEMA should establish a mechanism to raise funds for the expensive process of managing e-waste. An option is to charge a fee to the supplier and/or the importers of old equipment or those who want to dispose off large volumes of e-waste.
  • Local authorities should establish e-waste disposal sites far from residential areas due to health concerns the ministry responsible for the environment and NEMA should encourage the civil society to create awareness and conduct research on e-waste trends.
  • Invest in e-waste data improvement. One area of improvement in aid of policy-making is in terms of capturing actual data on generation of E-waste and second hand electronics. For instance, little is known about the actual level of domestic E-waste generation or the amount of e-waste that enters the country annually. The improvement in data collection should be able to capture and take into account illegal movement and importation of E-waste. The availability of realistic information about the E-waste would serve as a foundation for effective decision-making.
  • Work with the existing institutional set-up. Every stakeholder including the end users has a role in the implementation of a successful waste management program. In order to address the issue of e-waste, policy-makers and different stakeholder should work together and take into consideration the existing institutional set-up in introducing E-waste management intervention. Key actors along the supply chain of electronics have to be involved including the informal sector.
  • Promote a favorable climate that encourages E-waste management. A number of initiatives have to be implemented that encourage e-waste management by creating a favorable climate to attract people to take part in e-waste management. Making recycling programs more accessible and convenient for people would certainly encourage wider participation.
  • Adopt an E-waste management framework. Government and policy-makers should take lead roles in developing and adopting an E-waste management framework. E-waste is an emerging waste stream, yet the existing environmental policies failed to incorporate E-waste as an area for concern.

By Dan Nuwamanya, Senior Environmentalist and the Managing Consultant of DESIS-Consult International Ltd, a leading Environmental Consulting Firm in Uganda