The Terrible Cost of Ghana’s Electronic Waste Dump

Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Environment, November 20, 2012
  • Agbogbloshie is a wasteland of smoke and rubble nicknamed “Sodom and Gomorrah” by the locals. Plastic parts, wires, and pieces of metal and glass lie strewn across the terrain, alongside more immediately recognizable household objects like televisions and refrigerators. And the air is thick with the harsh smell of burning plastic and foul sewage gases drifting in from the heavily polluted Odaw River. Men and boys wander this bleak landscape in search of anything they can salvage and re-sell.

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  • As part of his final year thesis at Roskilde University, photographer Vibek Raj Maurya visited the e-waste dumpsite of Agbogbloshie, near Accra in Ghana, to assess the environmental and socio-economic impact the site has had on the area. “Since I had read and seen video footage of Agbogbloshie and the surrounding scrap markets, I planned to interview workers, scrap dealers and residents,” says Maurya. “While I was there, I also took the opportunity to document the place and the activities.”

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  • “Agbogbloshie was a bustling scrap market,” adds Maurya. “Literally everything comes to this place at the end of its life: plastics, machines, vehicle parts, batteries, tires, electronics… The scrap collectors, popularly called ‘boys’, sell scrap to the dealers. The dealers then get other ‘boys’ to extract the recyclable materials – which are ultimately sold to exporters.”

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  • “The front of the market is where scrap is hauled in, dismantled, and traded,” explains Maurya. “Women and children are often seen selling food and water. The field behind the market is where valueless materials are scattered. Computer cases were piled high, and people lit fires and burnt cables, tires and other materials to extract metal. The adjacent water body serves as a cesspool for most of the city, which further loads the area with toxic waste.”

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  • In one section of the market you can find hard drives for sale, and some criminals buy these in order to unlock the information encrypted within. “I can get your bank numbers and retrieve all your money from your accounts,” says local computer scientist Enoch Kwesi Messiah. “If somebody gets your hard drive, he can get information about you, no matter where it is hidden.” The claims aren’t hard to believe, given that Ghana is listed as one of the top cyber-crime countries in the world by the US State Department. And considering the fact that agencies like NASA and United States Homeland Security deposit their e-waste here, it’s an even scarier thought.

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  • In this e-wasteland, young boys cover computers in old foam before setting them alight to melt off the plastic. They then pick out the scraps of iron and copper that they can sell. Meanwhile, electric wires are burnt to remove the plastic casing, so that the boys can salvage the copper strands inside using their bare hands and small blades.

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  • Of course, all of this burning plastic produces toxic black smoke that lingers in the air. The smoke is everywhere, drifting over the dumpsite, the market, and even into the neighboring residential area. According to some sources, 40,000 (other sources claim as many as 70,000) people live in Agbogbloshie, and many of them are refugees. And while their lives here are far from easy in view of the conditions they endure, at least they can make a living.

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  • “Although many of the dealers I interacted with were from Accra, some of the young boys who worked for them came from poorer parts of the country to support their families,” recalls Maurya. “Some of them were as young as 12 years old.”

    “Life is really difficult; they eat here, surrounded by e-waste. They are here to earn a living, but you can imagine the health implications,” explains Mike Anane, a journalist from the area.

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  • The most obvious health implications are respiratory diseases brought on by breathing in the fumes of burning plastic. Children exposed to lead, cadmium and brominated flame-retardant fumes are at risk of damage to their brains as well as nervous and reproductive systems.

    In a similar e-waste dump in Guiyu, China, it was found that 80% of the children had dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstream. But of course it’s because these electronic parts are so poisonous that they are sent to areas like Guiyu and Agbogbloshie in the first place, safely out of sight of the wealthier nations from which they come.

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  • Agbogbloshie was not always like this. Once, the dump was a large wetland. But today the only reminders of the area’s more fertile past are the toxic Odaw River and the polluted Korle Lagoon, which is described as “one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth.”

    Agbogbloshie’s transformation into a toxic e-waste dump began with an act of generosity. In the 1980s, developed nations sent working computers to Accra as donations, to “help bridge the digital divide.” However, as time went on, the donating turned into dumping. Soon, digital waste began to arrive from all over the world – mainly from the USA, but also from the UK, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Korea. Agbogbloshie had become a garbage dump for unwanted electronics.

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  • Although exporting e-waste is often illegal, corrupt dumpers cut through the red tape by labeling the shipments “donations”. And these days, many people in Agbogbloshie are economically dependent on the waste, meaning exports are unlikely to stop altogether, no matter what the risks are to the land or to the workers.

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  • There are plans to improve environmental conditions in Agbogbloshie through initiatives like the government’s Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project (KLERP). However, since any restoration work can only be done if people vacate the area, a lot of people who live and work in Agbogbloshie oppose the project. Cleaning up the area and simultaneously ensuring that the population is still provided with employment and housing will be a major challenge to overcome. Here, there are no easy solutions.

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  • Maurya is not hopeful that things will change any time soon. “According to business people, nothing has been done to improve conditions,” he says. “A government official told me that they are planning to relocate the scrap market to a new location with better recycling facilities. I doubt that this has been implemented.”

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  • In order to conduct his research and take these candid photographs, Maurya had to get to know the locals of Agbogbloshie. “It took me almost two weeks to break the ice,” he says. “I frequently visited the place and attempted to talk to the dealers and businessmen, but they were indifferent. It’s not that people were cold, they simply avoided speaking to an ‘outsider’, especially because the place has been in the international media again and again.”

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  • Eventually, Maurya was able to establish a friendlier rapport with the people of Agbogbloshie. “Once I had their confidence, I had a series of conversations with them. They have had great input on my research, and without their consent, I would not have taken the pictures either.”

    We’re certainly grateful that Maurya was able to document his journey, and we thank him for sharing his photographs and insights with us.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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