- Ben Morris
- BBC Business Technology Editor
Eric Arthur doesn’t have much time for leisure: he spends most of his weekends driving around Ghana to pick up broken cell phones.
From your home on the Cape Coast in the south of the country, you can travel more than 100 miles in a weekend visiting repair shops and scrap yards, or anywhere that has a decent supply of broken devices.
On a good weekend you can collect 400 of them. In addition, he manages a team of six who do the same in other parts of the country. Among them they expect to collect around 30,000 phones this year.
Arthur and his agents pay sellers a small amount for each cell phone, between 2.5 and 2.7 Ghana Cedis (about US $ 0.44).
Although they cannot be repaired, they sometimes have to persuade people to hand them over.
“An Android phone [nuevo] It costs about $ 150 and I’m offering you less than $ 1 for it. Even though it can’t be used anymore, they say to me: ‘But I bought it at this price, so why should I give it to you so cheap?’ “Arthur tells the BBC.
Why send them thousands of miles?
Closing the Loop It is the company that pays Eric and his six collaborators. The company ships the collected phones to Europe, where they are broken down and recycled.
Then a specialized foundry company recovers about 90% of metals from the mobile phones, a process that incinerates plastic parts.
Joost de Kluijver, who co-founded Closing the Loop with Reinhardt Smith, says the answer is simple: Africa doesn’t yet have the sophisticated smelting plants needed to recover the small amounts of high-value metals used to make a phone. mobile.
“Everything is missing for there to be financially sustainable plants,” he says. “There is no legislation, no infrastructure, and no consumer awareness. As a result, you don’t have the money to fund proper collection and recycling.”
Meanwhile, around 230 million cell phones are sold in Africa each year. When they are no longer needed, some are collected by the informal recycling industry, but most are thrown away.
According to him Global E-Waste Monitor, Africa generated 2.9 million tonnes of e-waste in 2019, of which only 1% was collected and recycled efficiently.
“African countries are experts in life cycle extension, in repair and also to some extent in recycling. So the mentality is already there, but the right tools are lacking, especially for this type of waste,” says de Kluijver.
To pay for phone collection in Africa, Closing the Loop makes deals with businesses and organizations that pay it around € 5 (US $ 5.60) for each new phone they buy or rent to whoever provides their technology.
For every new device, Closing the Loop recycles an equivalent amount of e-waste in countries that lack formal recycling capacity.
The 5 euros (US $ 5.60) per phone covers the collection, shipping and recycling of a phone in Africa, plus some profit for the company.
Closing the Loop’s growing list of clients includes Dutch government and financial services company KPMG. For customers it is a relatively small investment, but it has a significant environmental benefit.
De Kluijver criticizes some recent efforts to establish waste recycling schemes in Africa. He argues that without a sustainable financial model and proper legislation, they will have a hard time getting off the ground.
Simone Andersson, for her part, is well aware of those challenges. She is the business manager for the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Center (WEEE), which recycles electronic devices in Kenya.
Kenya does not have a recycling system run by the national government, only a waste collection service in some areas.
The idea for the WEEE Center came from Computers For Schools Kenya, a non-profit organization that provides refurbished computers to schools.
His work with schools showed that there was a need to deal with e-waste. The recycling company went live in 2012.
This year, the WEEE Center expects to collect 250 tons of electronic waste, mainly through agreements with large firms such as Total Energies and Absa.
But this is only a small fraction of the 50,000 tons of electronic waste that it is estimated generates Kenya every year.
Andersson has ambitious plans to establish collection points across the country, where people can leave their unwanted electronic devices.
She says Kenyans are becoming more aware of the environmental problems caused by this type of waste and that they would like to do something about it.
“Most people are very aware of the general waste problems. If there were an alternative infrastructure, many would be willing to change their habits. We want to be part of the e-waste solution,” he says.
Role model in Africa
The Kenyan government is taking steps to help in that regard.
There is a plan in place to pass the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, with which the financial burden of recycling would fall on companies producing or importing electronic products.
“We are pressuring them because we see that it is necessary in this country,” says Andersson. “And we also want Kenya to be a role model for the rest of Africa.”
“If we can get the laws enforced, it will help. Maybe not right away, but it sure will. will cause a change in mindsetand it will have a great effect on goals and structures. “
The WEEE Center workshop team of 10 technicians carefully classifies and disassembles electronic devices. Some metals, such as iron and copper, can be recovered locally, but precious metals such as gold, platinum, and palladium that are embedded in circuit boards can only be recovered by specialized foundries in Europe or Asia.
Andersson says that one day he would like to build a smelting plant in Kenya.
“As we expand, we would like to bring that technology to Africa. Why not East Africa? Why not Kenya and Nairobi? That is part of our vision.”
De Kluijver also hopes that Closing the Loop can finance recycling plants and smelters in Africa, but until then, the next best option is to ship the mobile phones to Europe.
Back on the Cape Coast in Ghana, Eric Arthur has seen improvements in e-waste management in recent years, but believes more needs to be done.
“With more education, I think people will come to understand the need for e-waste disposal,” he says.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.