E-waste in Ghana: where death is the price of living another day

| 7th August 2014
Aglogbloshie - burning off plastic to get to valuable metals. Photo: qamp.net via Flickr.
Aglogbloshie - burning off plastic to get to valuable metals. Photo: qamp.net via Flickr.
Attempts to recycle E-waste and donations of old electronic devices are harming poor people's health and devastating the environment, writes Nele Goutier. Agbogbloshie, once an idyllic landscape of wetlands and small farms, is now the most toxic place in the world ...
Old devices can be shipped under the cloak of recycling and be subsequently dumped on the landfills of the poor.

"Eleven years ago Agbogbloshie was an amazingly beautiful place with rivers, a lagoon and many fish; a paradise.

"Now the river is dead. The only things fishermen catch are computers and refrigerators", says Mike Anane, environmental journalist.

He is right: Agbogbloshie market in Ghana showed no resemblance to the description in my book, that promised me "beautiful wetlands".

Today, thick, black clouds hover ominously in the sky, blocking the sunlight for many kilometers and taking my breath away - literally. Because Agbogbloshie, home for 50,000 people, it is also biggest E-waste landfills in the world, where many old electronics from all over the world find their final destination under the cloak of recycling.

It is the most toxic place in the world, reports the Blacksmith Institute: more toxic than Chernobyl.

For over two decades, the dumping of electronic waste - and its highly toxic side effects - in poor countries has attracted the attention of media and policy makers.

But despite 25 years of trying to decrease the streams, E-waste transportation is bigger than ever before. A global waste stream in which so many different parties and interests are involved, and about which such little awareness exists, turns out extremely hard to regulate.

Urban mining

Alpha Alhassan (35) is one of the estimated 35,000 Ghanaians who depend on the landfill in Agbogbloshie for their survival. With matches in his pocket and a big plastic bowl balancing on his head, he has spent the last 25 years wading through the remains of old televisions, computers, phones, fridges and whatnot, looking for old cables he can burn to collect the small quantities of copper they contain.

The days are long, the profits meager. Alhassan's twelve hours of 'urban mining' a day yields a questionable reward: between 300 and 1,000 Cedi's (100-320€) a month, and severe health problems.

One does not need to be a doctor to realize that working in E-waste landfills is unhealthy. Workers suffer from chronic headaches and respiratory problems. "E-waste is an extremely dangerous kind of ordure", explains Iryna Labunska, radiation safety advisor for Greenpeace.

"Electronics are full of toxic chemicals and metal leads that people not only breathe in, but that also contaminates the water, the soil and thus the food chain. Long term exposure harms almost all organs, bones, fertility and IQ to name just a few."

When Greenpeace examined the soil in Agbogbloshie, they found levels of contamination that were a 100 times higher than what is considered healthy and harmless. It is no surprise that only the poorest people, the ones who don't have any other option, work and live under the devastating conditions in Agbogbloshie.

Old devices can be shipped under the cloak of recycling and be subsequently dumped on the landfills of the poor.

Alhassan has a wife and six children to provide for. "I'm not aware of pollution or health risks. I must come here to stay alive", he says. Sadly, his attempt to make a living is likely to kill him.

Rapid E-waste increase

Agbogbloshie's E-waste area covers almost a square kilometre strewn with a wide variety of electronics and smoking fires of burning waste. It seems surprising that a country as poor as Ghana - where the average monthly income per family is only $110 - collects this many electronics.

"In almost all cases, E-Waste is not a local product, but originates from developed countries", says Labunska,

The harbor of Accra receives 600 to 1,000 containers every month, adds Ananes. They contain televisions, cell phones, cartridges, fridges and all others kinds of devices coming from countries in Europe, the America's and Oceania. Only a fraction of the E-Waste is still functional. The rest is supposed to be recycled, but the vast majority goes straight to landfill.

The 13% of E-waste that does end up in the recycling process, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is deconstructed - often by children aged aged 5 - 17, with no protection against poisonous effects. They burn cables to collect copper, strip components that can be re-used and re-sold and use acid baths to extract gold from microchips.

Agbogbloshie market is no exception. According to the United Nations, 50 million tons of E-waste is shipped worldwide every year, destined for developing countries such as India, Pakistan, China and Nigeria.

"Fast innovations and fast replacement of especially ICT and mobile phones, combined with the decreasing price levels for most electronics, are worsening the problem with e-waste every day", says Mike Anane. The UN's StEP (Solving the E-waste Problem) initiative claims that E-waste streams will rise 33% over the next four years.

In many cases the transportation is an attempt to get rid of dangerous debris, but - perhaps more surprisingly - moneymaking is another important motivation. Companies in developed countries have discovered the economic potential of extracting raw materials through urban mining.

In other cases, the shipping of used electronics is part of charity attempts meant to provide digitally-deprived countries with electronic equipment. Yet upon arrival, a large part of such donations are found to be defective and go straight to landfill, to further intoxicate people and environment.

Hence well-meant charity risks doing more harm than good.

Dumping is strictly forbidden. And yet ...

With the rapid growth of E-waste, a solution to minimize harm is imperative. To protect both people and the environment, policymakers have been trying to set up a regulatory system.

The European Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR) and the OECD established agreements forbidding the shipping of hazardous waste, allowing only transportation of non-hazardous waste on the condition that it will be recycled safely. Dumping is never allowed.

Yet such agreements fail to counteract the ever increasing flow of dangerous E-waste. Even the Basel Convention couldn't make a change, despite its efforts since 1989 and its almost universal support. Twenty-five years after the Convention was set up , the rich continue to consume and discard, while the poor continue to suffer.

"The solution is simple, if only governments would make it their priority", says Giovana Vitola, Brazilian journalist who investigated Agbogbloshie. But the reality is much more complex.

E-waste is hard to regulate because of its global nature. It concerns streams that cross national and continental borders. However, due to a lack of academic research and data, the existing agreements are based on more traditional waste-streams.

They assume that they simply go from a starting point, usually in the global north, to a destination to be dumped, mostly in the south. Nothing is less true, writes Djahane Salehabadi in her research report for StEP.

"This e-waste here, for example, has an incredible story. The circuit boards originated somewhere on the East Coast of North America, went to a Taiwanese trader, were then shipped to Hong Kong, arrived via mainland China and several traders in California and finally ended up in Belgium."

Such an international trajectory is no exception and requires global regulation. But coming to international agreement turns out to be no easy task.

The disagreement begins with the very definition of what E-waste actually is. The OECD, UN and BAN have all composed lists of toxic elements, and E-waste that contains these substances cannot be exported.

But the lists of each organization categorizes elements differently. Consequently, what is illegal to transport according one organization, can be perfectly legal according to another.

Moreover, "it is very hard to keep lists up-to-date", says Labunska, "because we keep inventing new technologies and the number of used chemicals is ever increasing. No one manages to keep up with that."

And thus, a universal blacklist doesn't exist, which leaves E-waste shippers in a 'regulatory no-man's land', free to interpret the rules in the way that suits them best.

Toxic treasure

What further hinders regulation, is the assumption that E-waste is mere 'trash' that developed countries want to get rid of. The truth is that old electronics - as toxic as they are - offer opportunities to make big money. One ton of cell phones, for instance, contains as much gold as 70 tons of gold ore.

Given such economic opportunities, a total ban on E-waste transportation, as demanded by some, is unrealistic. After all, environmentally-sound recycling in industrialized countries is up to ten times more expensive than the low-cost, primitive recycling in developing countries.

Moreover, recycling could be a way of dealing with the finity of raw materials. As a 2010 report from the European Commission revealed, 14 metals that are used for high tech products are in critical supply.

As a consequence, recycling is likely to become increasingly important, making regulation more realistic than a ban on E-waste transport.

But it is this very economic potential that makes it hard to come to international agreements. Because where there is a lot to gain, there is also a lot to lose. Consequently developed countries show little willingness to give up their economic elbow-room.

A clear example of such reluctance is shown by the US. Despite being the biggest E-waste producer in the world, the American government still hasn't ratified the Basel Convention.

However, economics also influence the actions of developing countries. Poor countries like Ghana lack money and power to successfully regulate and control E-waste import. At the same time, they often show reluctance to intervene, afraid to lose one of their most important industries and to create a more dangerous black market.

Governments have no means to provide for the landfill laborers if they would lose their jobs. Moreover, the laborers, trapped in poverty, don't ask questions. Scrap-worker Mohammed Ibrahim explains:

"My daily life is a struggle. I come to win my daily bread and have no time to think about pollution and environment."

Thus, no pressure is put on developing country governments and E-waste traders can act freely.

Low-risk, high-profit trafficking

Economic opportunities and the lack of global rules lead to yet another problem: the booming business of E-waste trafficking. Inspections of 18 European harbors revealed that 47% of the E-waste was illegal, because they contained hazardous complements or because they were bound to be dumped rather than recycled.

The high level of fraud comes as no surprise: the lack of international agreement leads to a number of loopholes, making trafficking a low-risk high-profit practice.

Firstly, since different organizations apply different definitions of hazardous E-waste, a cargo that is not allowed in one region, can often still be shipped via another route, explains Salehabadi. Secondly, when a container full of old computers, cell phones or televisions arrives, is hard to determine whether they are recyclable.

Even if they are, goods may still end up on the ever expanding landfills. It is extremely difficult - if not impossible - to control whether E-waste effectively ends up being recycled. And thus, old devices can be shipped under the cloak of recycling and be subsequently dumped on the landfills of the poor.

The question remains, why would companies rather dump than recycle? There are several economic incentives underlying such illegal dumping. It is, for example, made profitable by governments in developed countries who try to encourage recycling by subsidizing it.

Companies can claim money if they carry out recycling activities, but it appears more profitable for them to collect E-waste and dump it overseas rather than actually recycle it themselves. The costs of overseas shipment are lower than the costs of domestic, environmentally-sound recycling, explains Anane:

"Companies have the choice to properly recycle a monitor and pay 6 to 12 dollars, or sell it to an 'urban mining' company overseas, receiving a few dollars."

From an economic point of view, it is an easy choice. Meanwhile, the consumer will never know that their supposedly 'green' deed ends up harming health and environment. With decreasing border control as a result of financial cut-backs, the truth is unlikely to be revealed.

Ultimately, the waste poisons us all

Not only consumers in western countries are often oblivious about the risks of recycling. In Ghana too, the awareness on the problem is limited. "I am roaming the city for scrap. What does that have to do with the environment?" wonders Alhassan out loud.

Atta Poku, student from Accra, agrees: "It is commonly assumed that there is not really a problem - that it is just something that politicians talk about to gain votes." It is this very lack of awareness that makes change hard; as long as people are oblivious, they will not be critical and governments will not be pressured into taking action.

But more than anything, the E-waste pollution is a problem of global inequality. The ones who know the problem best, are those who are directly influenced: the poor. They may not be aware of the health and environmental risks, but they do know that they live under extremely harsh conditions and struggle to survive.

These people are probably the most motivated to intervene, but they are also the ones with the least power. Alhassan: "All I can do is work hard so that my children do not end up here. They must have a better life."

At the same time, the ones who could stand up - people in developed countries, where the E-waste streams find their origins - do not realize the extent of the problem. And thus, no questions are asked, no protests arise. Only joint forces can solve an issue this broad and complex.

Therefore awareness is needed. Citizens have to start putting pressure on governments, companies and international bodies and force them to finally - after 25 years - make a change.

Creating awareness about a problem so far away from home seems futile, but is not impossible. After all, 'urban ore' does not only poison the poor, concludes Anane:

"We all share the water, we all share the air. What comes around, goes around, no matter where you are."



Nele Goutier is a current student at the Erasmus Mundus Master in Journalism, Media and Globalization at Aarhus University (Denmark) and the University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands). She works as a Senior Editor for the Pan-European news outlet Pandeia, where she has collaborated with the BBC and Unesco.

Nele also works for the bilingual news website RoosterGNN and has gained professional experience in among others Indonesia and Cuba. Besides writing, Nele is passionate about documentary making, a skill she has studied at the International Film and Television School in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba.

Photos: by AMP qampnet via Flickr, 2013. See also qamp.net.