Rwanda to Collect and Recycle Old Mobile Phones

Rwanda’s only e-waste recycling facility has announced plans to collect old phones for recycling and dismantling, Doing Business has learnt.

This comes as the country is set to host a world circular economy forum, from December 6-8, in Kigali to discuss how the circular economy can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support climate change adaptation, safeguard biodiversity and bring benefits to societies. A circular economy is defined as a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible.

Tons of mobile phone e-waste are going uncollected and might be endangering human health with poisonous chemicals across the country, environmentalists have warned.

Mobile subscribers have been increasing and there are currently around 11 million subscribers, according to data from the Rwanda Utilities and Regulatory Authority (RURA). However, only a handful of the old gadgets are traced, properly disposed of and recycled, meaning a bulk of them remain in people’s homes yet they are sources of doing business and generating revenues.

Others are dumped in inappropriate places, pausing serious health and environmental challenges, while some end up in small phone repair shops.

Mobile phone components that are not well disposed of contain toxic substances such as mercury, lead, and cadmium, which may leach from decomposing waste in landfills, seep into groundwater and contaminate the soil, contributing to cancer, damage to the central nervous system, mutation, and other disorders in humans according to environment experts.

For every million cell phones that are recycled, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered, according to the UN environmental protection Agency.

There is 100 times more gold in a ton of smartphones than in a ton of gold ore, it says.

In 2016 alone, 435,000 tons of phones were discarded, globally.

Olivier Mbera, the General Manager of Enviroserve-Rwanda, a facility dedicated to electronic and electrical waste recycling, told Doing Business that while other types of e-waste were being collected there was no activity for old mobile phones, adding that plans to collect old phones are underway.

“We have a project in the pipeline with telecommunication companies like MTN in order to start a campaign of bringing back old feature phones purchased at MTN and getting back smartphones. Enviroserve will collect these feature phones and dispose of them properly,” he said.

Less than 30 per cent of e-waste is collected

Mbera said that the facility can recycle up to 10,000 tons of e-waste a year, but it only recycles less than 30 percent of the capacity due to different challenges.

The challenges, he said, include limited awareness raising on the dangers of e-waste and why e-waste should be disposed of properly, moral attachment on electrical and electronic equipment where people don’t want to release their old equipment as well as lack of enforcement of the current e-waste management regulations.

“Since 2018, we have collected and recycled over 6, 000 tons of e-waste. We were able to refurbish 7, 500 computers and 70 per cent have gone back to schools. We created more than 673 green jobs and over 4, 500 tons of carbon emissions were mitigated,” he said.

Treating solar e-waste

Mbera said that they have also started to collect and treat solar e-waste.

“We have added different machines that are used in recycling solar waste products like batteries and cables. We established collection points in different districts of the country to help solar companies drop off their solar waste.”

“However, only few companies are voluntarily disposing of their e-waste and others continue to keep them in their stores or dump them at landfill as normal waste.”

The facility collected 300 tons of solar e-waste in 2019.

Projections indicate that the solar waste could increase to 11,400 tons in 2022 as off-grid energy is scaled up.

He said there is still lots of e-waste that needs to be collected, mostly household’s equipment.

“Rwanda is developing a system which will provide incentives to encourage and engage the population to sort their waste from home and drop off their e-waste at different collection points and our collection centres,” Mbera said.

Even though the company collects 300 tons of solar products waste, there are an estimated other 300 solar waste products that remain uncollected and end up poisoning the environment.

The company signed a partnership agreement with Energy Private Developers (EPD), an association bringing together all private companies operating in the energy sector in Rwanda, to form a framework that will ease disposal of solar energy waste.

Reports show that electronic waste is increasing by between 8 and 11 percent, every year, which requires improved efforts in collection and recycling. Environmental experts have said that new financing models for circular businesses are urgently needed as the current capital flows into sustainable busine

sses and circular ventures are far too low.

They say that circular economy companies need to develop bankable businesses that attract venture capitalists willing to take a risk.

“Development banks and other institutions can de-risk such investments with grant financing and technical assistance,” noted a statement by the Ministry of Environment ahead of the world circular economy forum.