Inside Rwanda's enduring battle to eliminate e-waste

Samples of e-waste rolls on display at a past e-waste management event in Kigali. Sam Ngendahimana.

Government’s decision to recycle obsolete and old electronic equipment had offered hope that the country was on course to getting rid of electronic waste.

However, latest figures show that the country’s sole e-waste recycling plant has managed to collect 700 tonnes of e-waste since it was leased out to EnviroServe Rwanda, a subsidiary of EnviroServe Dubai.

The plant has so far managed to mitigate 870 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions while 434 tonnes of e-waste have been dismantled and recycled as at the end of October this year.

Yet, it is estimated that Rwanda generates 10,000 tonnes of e-waste every year, which is way higher than what the recycling plant collects.

To handle more capacity, the firm has a plan to expand its operations and open another facility.

Coletha Ruhamya, the Director General of Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) says they are putting in place a comprehensive policy for waste management to cub the rise of electronic waste.

“The e-waste is increasing and our plan is to have a legal framework in place. We had developed a policy for e-waste but we were advised to have a policy for integrated waste management to enable private investments to come in to help us,” she explained.

The Government entered a lease agreement with EnviroServe Rwanda, a private e-waste electronic recycling company. The firm will run the Bugesera based recycling facility for a period of 10 years.

Company officials say they have been able to set up three collection centres, which will enable them to collect more waste.

“In our first year of operation, we have established three drop-off points (collection centres), even though the plan is to have 30 across the country. This has enabled us to collect more than 700 tonnes of e-waste,” Olivier Mbera, the General Manager of EnviroServe Rwanda, told The New Times.

The company also says that it has the ability to record and separate old equipment from the equipment that can be refurbished.

“We mainly refurbish computers, printers – the equipment that can be reused in schools. What we are doing is good for circular economy because we are promoting the lifespan of the equipment,” Mbera said.

He added that the company has sold nearly 1,300 refurbished computers to schools at a low cost.

The firm also dismantles and recycles e-waste for the purposes of removing hazardous elements as well as recovering valuable components like steel, aluminium, copper and plastic.

The Government says that electronics waste is no longer a burden in Rwanda. This is a big statement for a country that had previously grappled with electronics waste.

An EnviroServe study, which was conducted prior to beginning operations, shows that one institution used to spend between Rwf2 million and Rwf5 million to rent a warehouse to store electronic waste.

Individuals, on the other hand, would throw the waste which would end up in landfills, which posed environmental and hazardous health threats.

There is no study that has been conducted in Rwanda to ascertain the level of health threats posed by e-waste that ends up in landfills can pose. However, these studies have been conducted elsewhere.

Mubera points out that Ghana where such a study was conducted showed that toxic chemicals and metal leads from electronics waste posed cancer threats, among other diseases.

Globally the amount of e-waste continues to grow, while too little is recycled, according to the United Nations.

In 2016, for example, the world generated 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste and only 20 per cent was recycled through appropriate channels, the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2017 shows.

E-waste economic value

As efforts to provide solutions to e-waste take shape, EnviroServe says the economic value from the waste is also unmatched, disclosing a few statistics to prove how much they are earning from valuable components.

Valuable components, including copper, steel and aluminium are extracted from the waste, compressed and are sold to processing companies. A tiny portion of other valuables is exported.

“For example, for steel, we sell it to steel industries like Imana Steel as a raw material which is used to produce iron bars. Actually the quality of steel we get from waste is very good,” Mbera notes.

It is not only steel that is sold locally. High density plastic and aluminium also have a market domestically, while copper is exported.

The company says it processes 10 tonnes of steel per month. Plastic processed and sold is at 25 per cent of steel, while less than 1 per cent and 2 per cent of aluminium and copper is sold, respectively.

Steel costs Rwf300 per kilogramme. This means 10 tonnes could generate Rwf3 million per month. Aluminium, on the other hand, costs Rwf800 and a kilogramme goes for over Rwf3,000.