BELGIUM/KENYA - The idea that electronic waste is carelessly dumped in the remote corners of the globalised world is outdated. Everyone wants to get the materials out of our old computers and televisions, including the EU. Arthur Debruyne and Sam Sermon investigated illegal export, e-waste recycling in Kenya and Belgium, and the built-in obsolescence that gives electro-appliances an ever shorter lifespan.
The export of second-hand electronic devices from Belgium to Africa often goes hand in hand - at least in perception - with large-scale illegal dumping of harmful e-scrap. Nevertheless, there is much more reuse and recovery of our discarded electronic devices than careless dumping.
In addition, a lot of e-scrap is now leaving for Asia, especially China. Legal institutions are beginning to map out the networks of waste traders, but face considerable obstacles. For a lot of exports, it is by no means always clear what exactly is illegal.
In Kenya and a few other African countries, the Belgian NGO WorldLoop is starting a solid recycling industry, in cooperation with local recycling companies. In developing countries there is not yet a take-back system for harmful waste like in Belgium: the market determines which materials are 'informally' recycled or dumped.
Meanwhile, the European recycling industry is concerned about the supply of electronic waste: there is overcapacity and, moreover, too much leaks outside the EU. Yet even within Europe, a lot of material is still being lost. Indium, a metal used in LCD screens, is not recycled in that form. Indium is expensive, but not (yet) expensive enough.
Electronic waste is one of the fastest-growing waste streams today. From 2000 to today, the number of devices that we dispose of every year has doubled. The lifespan of household appliances has, therefore, become shorter over the years. Both politically and socially, reaction arises.