As anyone who reads the Times knows by now, there is an international investigation going on about e-waste. The Times published a story exposing the illegal transporting of defunct computers and other electronics to Brazil and Ghana – among other things, a Ministry of Defence computer wound up in a scrapyard in Accra that has a thriving trade in still-viable hard disks, which made people a little nervous back in the UK.
The problem of e-waste is real – contractors specialise in making your electronic rubbish disappear from view, only to make it highly visible to the poorest of Accra down in the Agbobloshie scrap market district, who are only too happy to rip it apart, burn off anything not made of lead or copper, and sell the resulting metals to traders in Tema, Ghana’s main port and industrial area.
There is an international treaty, the Bamako Convention, which sets out why this is not a good idea, and comprehensively bans it. 30 African countries have ratified it, including all Ghana’s neighbours. However Ghana has not, which makes it a prime destination for toxic e-crap of all kinds. And it is truly toxic. The standard chemicals released when you break down computers include antimony oxide (symptoms similar to arsenic poisoning); beryllium (which has a fatal lung disease named after it); cadmium (lung cancer and heart disease); lead (nervous system damage); and phthalates (asthma, liver and kidney damage).
These are released most effectively when you rip apart and burn the items, although leaving them to seep into the soil over a long period is also an option.
Based on this, I decided Agbobloshie was clearly the place to be. So I went down to take a look.
It is fairly apocalyptic. The smoke billowing from the farthest reaches of the scrap heap envelops everything, casting a dark cloud over the area and wafting a smell that was worryingly familiar as one of the standard Accra smells – meaning it’s making it out of Agbobloshie to share its chemical joys with the rest of the city.
The first part of the scrapyard is fairly standard: trashed refrigerators that predate the CFC ban, bits of bicycles and cars, all waiting to be loaded into trucks to go off to Tema for reuse. There is also a thriving trade in old car batteries, which the scrap sellers (or more often their junior brothers) break open to salvage the lead. The rest of the battery is thrown away. The scrapyard sits on the bank of the river which flows into the Korley lagoon in central Accra, where according to the local press 5,000 euros a day is being spent on a cleanup exercise to reduce its toxicity.
Further in, people are collecting the copper wires out of computers and other goods and taking them to where the casing is removed by burning. This is not a healthy activity, but is being performed by young men and boys who probably don’t have much access to information on the health effects of cadmium, phthalates, etc.
It also results in a landscape that looks like a Balkan capital after a nuclear war.
This is a migrant business: everyone I spoke to had come from the north of Ghana, which is much poorer and sends a constant stream of migrants south. The boys gathering and burning the computer parts all spoke Hausa and Dagbani, as did the girls who came by to see what I was up to.
There seems to be a rule in Ghana that wherever there are toxic and awful things going on, there are kids having an inappropriately good time. These girls, who had a blast making fun of my appalling Dagbani, clearly have a future in showbusiness:
Particularly this one:
I then found some boys taking a break, who explained that they had quit school in the North to come to Accra and make some money for their families. They told me they make 70 pesewas (47 cents) for each pound of lead they sell, and 2 cedis ($1.35) for a pound of copper, which entails burning the casing off several bucketloads of wire. This is not bad money, for Ghana.
So these are the poorest Ghanaians, migrating south, and trying to make money to support those back home. They are likely to be illiterate (northern Ghana has little education and thus an illiteracy rate of 79%), so that it’s unlikely they can read the warnings in the press about the carcinogens they are helping to release. After half an hour at the scrapyard I was high on fumes and was still feeling dizzy and sick eight hours later, so I can only imagine what happens if you work there every day.
And as with all toxic places in Ghana, people also live there. The community is unplanned, naturally, and has no water or electricity. The sewage system consists of a puddle outside the wall:
which eventually seeps into the river:
and thus down to the aforementioned lagoon.
The most powerful thing about Agbobloshie – apart from the smell – is the sense of opportunity that pervades its dumps and fuming bonfires. For most of the kids I spoke to, a job burning carcinogenic crap was a desirable career option compared to the hunger and lack of opportunities back home in the village. They were working, and this made sense to them.
What I carried away, as usual, was a feeling that this energy could be put to better use. The few responsible electronics manufacturers that want to make sure their e-waste is disposed of in an environmentally safe way (at least the e-waste that they can identify and that is offered up by their customers) have to pay large amounts to disposal experts. A coalition of relevant parties such as big computer manufacturers, environmental organisations and private donors could set up a high-tech recycling industry in a country like Ghana, involving actual standards and buildng capacity that would be unique in the developing world. Ghana could make a nice living receiving and processing e-waste properly, instead of having children rip and burn it apart with their bare hands, then having the rest of us inhale the results.
Unfortunately it’s much easier just to let things be. The kids aren’t complaining, after all. And by the time they feel the effects, they’ll be back home in Savelugu, Yendi or Choggu. If they make it to a hospital, which is unlikely, the diagnosis will be the same as it always seems to be: poverty.