Why broken African phones are shipped to Europe

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Eric Arthur collects broken phones at the weekends© Eric Arthur Eric Arthur collects broken phones at the weekendsFrom his home in Cape Coast he can rove more than 100 miles (160km) in one weekend visiting repair shops and scraps yards – anywhere that has a decent supply of broken devices.

In a good weekend he can collect 400 of them. On top of that, he manages a team of six agents doing the same thing in other parts of the country, and between them they expect to collect around 30,000 phones this year.

Mr Arthur and his agents pay a small amount to sellers for each phone, 2.5-2.7 Ghanaian cedis, or around 44 US cents (33p).

Even though the phones are beyond repair, sometimes it can take some persuading to get people to part with them.

“A [new] Android phone goes for like $150 and I offer them less than $1 for it. Even though it is no longer usable, they’re like: ‘But I bought it at this price. So why should I give it as cheap as that?'”

His weekend work is paid for by a Dutch company called Closing the Loop. The company ships the phones collected by Eric and his team over to Europe, where they are broken down and recycled. Then a specialist smelting firm retrieves around 90% of the metals in the phone – a process which incinerates the plastic parts.

But why ship phones thousands of miles from West Africa?

Fees from clients in Europe fund recycling in Africa at Closing the Loop© Closing the Loop Fees from clients in Europe fund recycling in Africa at Closing the LoopJoost de Kluijver, who co-founded Closing the Loop with Reinhardt Smith, says the answer is simple. Africa does not yet have the sophisticated smelting plants needed to retrieve the small quantities of highly valuable metals that go into making a mobile phone.

“Everything you need to have in a plant that is financially sustainable, is missing,” he says. “There’s no legislation, infrastructure and no consumer awareness. As a result, you don’t have any money to fund proper collection and recycling.”

Meanwhile around 230 million phones are sold in Africa every year. When they are no longer needed, some are picked up by the informal recycling industry, but most are thrown away.

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According to the Global E-waste Monitor, Africa generated 2.9 million tonnes of electronic waste in 2019, of which only 1% was effectively collected and recycled.

“African countries are experts in life-cycle extension, in repair and also to some extent in recycling. So the mindset is already there but the proper tooling is missing, especially for this type of waste,” says Mr de Kluijver.

To pay for the collection of phones in Africa, Closing the Loop strikes deals with companies and organisations which pay Closing the Loop around €5 ($5.60; £4.20) per new phone that they buy or lease from whoever provides their technology.

For every new workplace device, Closing the Loop recycles an equivalent amount of electronic waste in countries that lack formal recycling capacity.

The €5 per phone covers the collection, shipping and recycling of a phone in Africa, plus some profit for Closing the Loop.

The growing list of customers includes the Dutch government and financial services firm, KPMG. For the clients it is a relatively small investment but it has a significant environmental benefit.

Closing the Loop expects to collect 300,000 phones this year© Closing the Loop Closing the Loop expects to collect 300,000 phones this yearMr de Kluijver is critical of some recent efforts to set up waste recycling schemes in Africa. He argues that without a sustainable financial model and enforced legislation in place they will struggle to get off the ground.

Simone Andersson is well aware of those challenges. She is the chief commercial officer of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Centre (WEEE) which recycles these goods in Kenya.

Kenya does not have a national government-run recycling system, just a waste collection service in some areas. The idea for WEEE Centre sprang from Computers For Schools Kenya, a non-profit organisation which supplies schools with refurbished computers.

Its work with schools showed that there was a need to deal with unwanted electronic waste and in 2012 the recycling firm was launched.

Simone Andersson with technician Ibrahim Kimani at WEEE Centre's workshop© WEE CENTRE Simone Andersson with technician Ibrahim Kimani at WEEE Centre’s workshopThis year, WEEE Centre expects to collect 250 tonnes of electronic waste, mostly through deals with big firms like Total Energies and Absa.

But this is only a small fraction of the estimated 50,000 tonnes of e-waste that Kenya generates every year. Ms Andersson has ambitious plans to set up collection points all over the country where people will be able to leave their unwanted electronics.

She says that Kenyans are becoming more aware of the environmental problems caused by e-waste and would like to do something about it.

“Most people are very aware of the general waste problems. Many would like to change their ways, if there was only some infrastructure, supporting it – we want to be part of solving that when it comes to e-waste,” she says.

The Kenyan government is taking some steps to help: there is a plan underway to introduce Extended Producer Responsibility legislation (EPR), which will assign the financial burden of recycling products back to the producers or importers of electronic goods.

“We are pushing for it because we see it’s needed in this country,” says Ms Andersson. “And we also want Kenya to be a good role model for the rest in Africa.

“Having the EPR is going to help if we get the laws in place. Maybe not immediately, but for sure it puts a totally different mindset and will have a great effect on targets and structures.”

WEEE Centre's technicians dismantling electronic devices - iron and copper can be recovered in Kenya, but precious metals have to be dealt with out of Africa© WEEE Centre WEEE Centre’s technicians dismantling electronic devices – iron and copper can be recovered in Kenya, but precious metals have to be dealt with out of AfricaWEEE Centre’s workshop team of 10 technicians carefully sorts and dismantles electronic devices. Some metals – iron and copper – can be recovered locally, but precious metals like gold, platinum and palladium that are embedded in the circuit boards can only be retrieved by specialist smelting firms in Europe or Asia.

One day Ms Andersson would like to build a smelting plant in Kenya: “As we expand, we definitely want to bring that technology to Africa. Why not eastern Africa? Why not Kenya and Nairobi? That is one part of our vision.”

Mr de Kluijver also hopes that Closing the Loop will be able to finance recycling plants and smelters in Africa, but until then, the next best option is to ship phones to Europe.

Back in Cape Coast in Ghana, Eric Arthur has seen improvements in the handling of electronic waste in recent years, but thinks more needs to be done.

“With more education, I believe that people will come to understand the need for one to dispose of electronic waste,” he says.

Follow Technology of Business editor Ben Morris on Twitter.

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