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Big clean-up of WEEE processing

Recent moves to build up e-waste treatment capacity, skills and knowledge in Africa should provide a sustainable solution for the growing waste stream. Margaret Bates reports

The launch of the full scale East African Compliant Recycling (EACR) in December 2013 was a result of several years of planning, awareness raising and capacity building in Kenya, and across the wider African continent. 

It builds on the work of Hewlett Packard (HP), along with Irish NGO Camara, which established a recycling pilot for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) in Mombassa, Kenya’s second largest city, in 2010.

The pilot, known as East African Computer Recycling, collected from businesses and informal collectors and introduced safer recycling practices, contributing to the end of the practice of burning cables to access copper.  HP then worked with UK-based WEEE recycler Reclaimed Appliances to develop the full-scale, commercially and environmentally viable solution, in Nairobi.

There have been many studies attempting to quantify the flow of second-hand, legal and illegal, electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) products around the globe. Recent studies, such as Where are WEEE in Africa?, calculated the penetration rate of various items and undertook WEEE inventories. 

The figures that arose from the studies vary, but there was a clear trend towards reduced illegal export of WEEE from the UK and increased uptake of EEE in developing countries.  But the problems with unsustainable end-of-life management of such products was clear. 

The BBC reported that Ghana’s infamous WEEE dump, Agbobloshie, poses the highest toxic threat to human life – even beating Chernobyl.   Agbobloshie may be the worst case but there are other smaller scale and equally dangerous WEEE activities taking place across Africa. 

In 2009, a partnership consisting of the Basel Convention Regional Coordinating Centre for Africa for Training and Technology Transfer based at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, The University of Northampton and Reclaimed Appliances, received funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for an Education Partnerships Africa Project. Its aim was to help build capacity amongst the informal recycling sector in Nigeria to enable it to adopt approaches for improved environmentally sound management of WEEE. 

The first workshop was held in June 2010, focusing on the risks to health and the environment.  Highlighted was the burning of cable to access the copper inside, the formation of dioxins and other carcinogenic substances, respiratory problems and pollution of surface and groundwater.

A second workshop was held a month later, with two more companies becoming involved: HP and UK-based e-learning specialist Learning Light. 

This workshop provided such opportunities as interactive disassembly demonstrations, videos, collection methodologies and entrepreneurship opportunities.  Delegates were taught how to recycle for added value - the optimum level of separation, without affecting health.

The involvement of companies that recycle WEEE gave added credibility, and allowed partnerships to be formed for long-term trade in recyclate. 

Building on the relationships developed during the initial Nigerian project, a group of original equipment manufacturers consisting of Dell, HP, Nokia and Phillips, as well as Reclaimed Appliances was formed: the E-waste Solutions Alliance for Africa (Alliance). 

It has worked with stakeholders, including regulators, to develop a sustainable solution to WEEE in Africa. In the proposed solution, waste management is considered an opportunity to recover valuable materials, create jobs and protect the environment and health.

The plans do not solely focus on the valuable end-of-life products. They also consider the entire information and communications technology WEEE stream, including problematic materials and waste fractions currently being burned or landfilled, as well as those with value.

How treatment works

EACR’s treatment facility is based in Nairobi but will take material from a range of collection points across Kenya and neighbouring countries.  Each collection point operates as a microbusiness, contracted to the treatment facility, providing opportunities for entrepreneurs.  

The collection points are frequently run by people who were in the informal WEEE recycling centre, often carrying out poor and potentially dangerous recycling and recovery.  Now they have been provided with training and personal protective equipment (PPE) so that they understand the risks and have the equipment and skills to manage those risks.  The standards and methods they use are clearly stated and enforced by the treatment facility.

Collection points are just that - there is no dismantling or recycling. This is all carried out at the central facility, which enables health, safety and pollution control systems to be provided. EACR uses recycling equipment provided by Reclaimed Appliances to process the equipment.

The recovered plastics, metals and other valuable materials are then sold to approved reprocessors and manufacturers to make new products.

While all the activities were taking place in Nigeria, there was increasing momentum in Kenya.  The Kenyan National Environmental Management Authority had already published WEEE guidelines, but without legislative support these were not having the desired impact.  The Alliance and its partners helped the Kenyan government write its regulations, bringing expertise from other parts of the world.

The University of Northampton has developed a range of training packages, for example on health and safety, environmental protection, mercury spills and others.  Potential collection point operators have to undertake the training and pass a test before a contract is signed to operate the collection point. 

The business model - developed by Reclaimed Appliances after years of research in Africa and featuring the EACR recycling facility, collection points and informal collectors - ensures the value of the materials recovered is passed on to create jobs and wealth, and reduces unsafe recycling practices.

The full-scale development of EACR, and deployment of some of the initial network of collection points, was made possible through a public private partnership between HP, the German Development Bank and EACR.  HP is also supporting the business model through donated IT hardware and sponsorship of the IT solution to ensure secure payment and traceability of physical and financial flows.

Other members of the Alliance, such as Dell, have created collection points, and are in formal contract negotiations with EACR to ensure that they can support the facility with end-of-life equipment from itself and its customers.  The involvement of such well-known brands gives added confidence of the systems and standards that are in place.

The model used in Kenya can be adopted by other countries providing a sustainable solution to the growing problem of WEEE while also supplying green jobs and helping to deliver sustainable development. 

Margaret Bates is manager of the Centre for Sustainable Wastes Management at the University of Northampton

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