World’s biggest e-dump, or vital supplies for Ghana?

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Welcome to hell”, “The world’s largest e-waste dump” “Inside the hellscape where our computers go to die” — these are all headlines about the Agbogbloshie waste dump in Accra in Ghana.

When I visited the unregulated dump in July, I expected to see mountains of computers and TVs stretching into the distance. The reality was rather different.

Compared with other dumps I have seen in Brazil and the Philippines, Agbogbloshie is not particularly large. And instead of masses of people scavenging across mounds of waste, it appeared to be more like a well-organised scrapyard.

The media have falsely labelled the Agbogbloshie site as the world’s biggest e-waste dump

I discovered no more electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) waste, or e-waste, among the vehicles and other scrap metal than you might expect for a dump in a city of more than two million people, with a growing middle class.

Workers at the site were clearly used to photographers. D. K. Osseo-Asare, colead of a project called AMP that supports Agbogbloshie’s recyclers, told me that many photographers arrive as if going on safari, hoping to capture images of squalor. I wasn’t the only one to notice the discrepancy between what I found and the media portrayal of the site as a magnet for the world’s e-waste. I did, however, see recyclers, mostly boys, extracting metals from e-waste without any form of protection against the toxins this work released.

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A recycler uses a makeshift knife to cut up copper wire

The Basel Convention, which came into force in 1992, bans the export of hazardous waste including e-waste from developed countries to developing ones for “final disposal, recovery or recycling”. [1]

In May 2015, a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report estimated that 60 to 90 per cent of the world’s electronic waste is illegally dumped. [2] Last year, nearly 42 million tonnes of e-waste were generated, and the trade in e-waste could be worth as much as US$18.8 billion a year, it says. “Many shipments of e-waste are disguised as second-hand goods,” the report says.

For more than seven years, Agbogbloshie has been the site most synonymous with e-waste dumping in the eyes of the world’s media, including, the New York Times, Al Jazeera and the Guardian.

Meanwhile, certain academics and those who work with recyclers on the site are increasingly concerned about this depiction. Critics such as Josh Lepawsky, a geographer from the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, say the reality is far more complex. The question, he argues, is whether second-hand electronics are being exported to Ghana as e-waste or to supply a demand for cheap electronics that can help the country bridge the digital divide.

There is little hard evidence to measure how much e-waste is dumped either globally or at Agbogbloshie. UNEP estimates that Ghana receives 40,000 tonnes a year. But Lepawsky notes that the original research found that half this figure comprised equipment that — while not working when it arrived in Ghana — was then repaired for local resale. [4] He questions whether this equipment should be classified as e-waste. Even the Basel Convention, he says, is “deeply ambiguous” on this point.

Lepawsky challenges UNEP’s premise in its May report that the key driver for illegal e-waste shipments “is the profit generated from payments for safe disposal of waste that in reality is either dumped or unsafely recycled”.

For this to be the case, he says, there would have to be instances of Ghanaians receiving payment specifically for receiving and disposing of imported e-waste. Yet, to his knowledge, this has never happened. Instead e-waste arrives, he says, but as ‘fallout’: equipment imported along with other products for resale or refurbishment, but which turns out to be unfixable.

Recycling metal from broken electrical tools

Environmental NGO the Basel Action Network (BAN) has been at the forefront of the campaign for the international community to clamp down on illegal e-waste exports. Although the United States hasn’t ratified the Basel Convention, BAN and Greenpeace have used the discovery of the ownership tags of US institutions on computers found at Agbogbloshie as evidence of e-waste dumping by US exporters.

Jenna Burrell, an ICT (information and communications technology) expert from the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States, argues that this may not be the case. While researching Accra’s internet cafes, she found computers in one with tags from the US Environmental Protection Agency. [5] Intrigued as to how they ended up in Ghana, she investigated the journey of the local second-hand equipment and discovered that the US government auctions obsolete equipment.

One possibility was that the US computers were bought at auction and then imported to Ghana for sale as used equipment. At the end of their life, these will be taken to Agbogbloshie. Her conclusion was that there is nothing “nefarious or shadowy” in seeing US tags on computers in Ghana.

A circuit board from a dumped personal computer — but how did it arrive at Agbogbloshie?

BAN says that second-hand equipment typically only lasts for one or two years and so will create high volumes of e-waste. But its import supplies the growing demand for cheap ICT across Africa. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of PCs per person increased tenfold on the continent, while the number of mobile phone subscribers rose 100 times. [4] Osseo-Asare of AMP says that imports made this possible. Cutting off this supply will result in the market being filled by new but cheap and low-quality imports that are likely to fail sooner than second-hand US and European imports, he says.

UK charity Computers 4 Africa exports equipment to Africa for educational and health uses. In 2010, Uganda banned the import of all second-hand computers. When Rob Schultz, who works on business development for the charity, tried to find out why, the Ugandan embassy told him they wanted to avoid becoming an e-waste dump. But Schultz questions why Africans should be deprived of the opportunity to buy cheap, second-hand goods, when so many Europeans dispose of new equipment within a couple of years.

As demand for EEE grows in Africa, there will be an ever-increasing supply of local e-waste. This, says Lepawsky, makes control of e-waste trade increasingly irrelevant. Up to 85 per cent of e-waste in West Africa is believed to have been generated from products used locally. [4] Lepawsky also questions the “obsessive focus” on electronics: cars, which include hazardous materials in their electronics and batteries, have been recycled at Agbogbloshie for decades yet it has never been tagged as a “c-dump”.

BAN founder Jim Puckett has compared Lepawsky and other researchers who question the “narrative of the illegal export and dumping in Accra” of e-waste to climate change deniers. While conceding that Agbogbloshie is not the world’s largest e-waste dump, Puckett says: “Illegal uncontrolled export of electronic wastes coming from developed countries is a primary cause of the mass dysfunction witnessed there.”

14-year-old Ibrahim is in charge of a group of boys who collect metal

Lepawsky does not, however, deny the environmental and health hazards of Agbogbloshie. During my visit, several fires were producing plumes of acrid smoke over the site. These fires release toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury. Exposure to heavy metals and other toxins from dumps is particularly damaging to children’s health, yet much of the recycling is carried out by teenage boys. [6]

Burning off plastic insulation from copper wiring

One, a 14-year-old migrant called Ibrahim from the town of Tamale in northern Ghana, oversees a group of younger boys who extract copper and aluminium from EEE and other scrap by burning off other materials. This part of the process is the most dangerous, as it releases toxic dioxins into the atmosphere.

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Fires release heavy metals and other toxic chemicals into the atmosphere

Osseo-Asare says he knows several young workers from the site who have died, probably of cancer. Greenpeace also found high levels of heavy metals in soil samples from the dump, including lead in concentrations up to 100 times higher than natural levels. Cattle, goats and hens graze on plants growing on this soil amid the dump.

The “dystopian narrative” of Agbogbloshie in the world’s media has, says Osseo-Asare, further marginalised the recyclers as the victims of e-waste dumping. Many of them used to live in a slum next to the waste site on the banks of the polluted Odaw River. The settlement, called Old Fadama but known to locals as “Sodom and Gomorrah”, was blamed for blocking the waterway and thus aggravating a June flood that killed 175 people in Accra.

When Fadama was bulldozed as part of the clear-up process, between 15,000 to 20,000 people were displaced. Osseo-Asare believes the recyclers’ negative portrayal in the media helped justify the slum’s destruction.

Two boys shift e-waste with the site of the demolished Old Fadama slum in the background

The government-owned site on which both the dump and the former slum lie is close to the city centre and thus potentially prime redevelopment land. Osseo-Asare believes this was one reason for Fadama’s demolition. The development plan for Accra has designated this area as a public park. If the dump is moved away from Agbogbloshie, Osseo-Asare hopes the site will indeed be decontaminated and turned into a park to be the “lungs” of the ever-expanding Accra.

So far, no-one has sought the recyclers’ views on Agbogbloshie’s future. But Osseo-Asare says these are vital to find a solution to the dump’s problems.

UNEP estimates that around 30,000 people in Ghana work to recycle various materials. Osseo-Asare sees enormous potential in using these workers’ skills both to recycle and to manufacture products from waste. As Africa develops, the demand for effective waste management will only increase. Osseo-Asare says equipment such as automated wire strippers is needed to enable recyclers to work without risk to their health or the environment. But for e-waste, as Greenpeace say, “ultimately only through eliminating hazardous chemicals from electronics, can we stop building this toxic legacy”. [3]

Osseo-Asare also worries that, once the world’s media attention — whether good or bad — shifts from Agbogbloshie, little will have changed for the recyclers on the site.

Just before I left Agbogbloshie, one recycler produced a mobile phone and took my photograph. I found out later that they keep a collection of images of the photographers who come to the site. No doubt I am now part of a rogues gallery of visitors seeking photographs of “hell on earth”.

A truck full of scrap metal for recycling near the site entrance