E-waste toxins polluting Ghana

Burning toxic electronic waste fills the air of Ghana's capital city with dangerous and nauseating dioxins.


Agblobashie, a slum in Ghana's capital, is plagued by electronic waste from more industrialized nations. The health of local people suffers as a result.

Those smartphones everyone rushes out to buy, the old ones people casually toss in the rubbish bin - they have to go somewhere.

Why have humans become so addicted to throwing things out that no longer function as opposed to repairing them, and, more importantly, how can they keep discarded electronics from poisoning those who live on the other side of the world? 

Industrial pollution

We've grown accustomed to convenience. The price of purchasing new electronic devices often costs far less than simply replacing them — I recently discovered this while trying to repair a 15-year-old TV where the parts necessary to fix the gadget were no longer manufactured.

Many people living in industrialized nations take for granted the fact they can replace a broken computer or shattered iPhone the moment their contract permits. Few give pause to reflect upon the way such behavior impacts others. 

The citizens of Accra, Ghana would probably beg to differ with such wanton disposal. The Korle Lagoon in the city ranks as one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth.

This lake regularly floods, impacting the poor living in the vicinity most. Even though the city's waste management department cleans the water daily, they only can keep up with 60 percent of the refuge entering the waterway, and the rest flows into the sea. 

Several industries in the region also contribute to high levels of pollution. But the fact remains that a huge portion of the waste clogging Ghana's waterways stems from foreign sources. 

Colonial legacy

According to research, seven million people perish every year due to air pollution, with the nations of Ghana, Nigeria and India most impacted.

The e-dumping site in Agblobashie is a primary source of this pollution, along with vehicle exhausts and particulates from fires which provide the major source of heat and cooking fuel for many in the region. 

Humans can reduce the amount of electronic waste they produce, but few take measures to recycle their gadgets properly. Upgrading has become the new normal, and people willingly wait in line for hours to upgrade their devices.

But the very devices so many casually toss in the rubbish contain a ton of toxic chemicals which leach into soil and waterways when discarded.

What happens in Agblobashie boils down to a matter of racism, imperialism and the incessant human battle over vital resources. 


Many electronic components carry little cash value — plastic has grown so ubiquitous, the folks at Lego probably could function fine on ocean waste alone — wiring, especially copper wiring, remains a rich source of revenue.

While techniques exist to harvesting this wire from old gadgets, the impoverished people living in the region cannot afford such technology. Therefore, they continue to remove the insulation from this wiring by burning it.

Burning wire insulation releases toxic dioxins into the air. Dioxins do exist everywhere in the environment but proliferate in areas where backyard burning reigns supreme such as in Agblobashie.

Anyone who has ever stood downwind of a traditional paper mill has inhaled the nauseating aroma emitted by the toxin. 

Dioxins find a home in human and animal fat, and they nest there for quite some time. Dioxins remain in the body anywhere from 7-11 years, and they accumulate in the food chain as well. Those who regularly consume animal products can raise the levels of dioxins in their bodies significantly. 

Virtual reality

Many people in Ghana recognize the extent of the problem, and they take measures to address the issue of e-trash.

Two game designers have created a virtual reality game aimed at educating the populace about the safe handling of discarded electronics.

The plan holds promise, as virtual reality is quickly becoming a very popular method of teaching consumers about their health outcomes and environmental impact, due to its easy-to-digest format in a digitally-focused world. In addition, there's also a Facebook group dedicated to cleaning up Agblobashie.

Most Americans pay little heed to the amount of trash they produce. Municipalities typically charge a flat fee for waste disposal, meaning few pay attention to what they toss in the rubbish.

And around the globe, scrappers - people who eke out an existence from the discarded remains of others - process said waste and remove usable components such as wiring. These people provide a valuable service that few respect. They deserve the tools necessary to do such work without putting their health and the health of the planet at risk.

Dumping ground

As the world's wealthiest nations continue to turn countries such as Ghana into their personal dumping grounds, investing in the infrastructure for letting people process refuge safely seems more than fair. 

Technology has made life easier for many, but that need not mean others should suffer for their privilege.

This Author 

​​​​​​​Kate Harveston is a vegan health and sustainability writer and the editor of women's wellness blog, So Well, So Woman.

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