Ghana, dumping ground for the west
The world’s e-waste problems are creating environmental and health risks in the poorest places
Young men burn e-waste at Agbogbloshie dump near Accra in Ghana, putting themselves at risk of serious illness. Many of them contract cancer while still in their 20s. Photograph: Cristina Aldehuela/AFP/Getty Images)
In the grim wetlands of Agbogbloshie in Ghana, the remains of technologies once used in homes now find others lives. Bulky old monitors are spaced out across expanses of water to build bridges.
To start a fire, the insulating material Styropor, from a kitchen fridge, is set alight. The bleak area outside the country’s capital, Accra, has been called one of the world’s biggest graveyard for electronic waste.
It is here where many old laptops, phones and kitchen appliances end up after being illegally dumped. Many young men and boys rifle and smash through the remains for precious metals which can be sold on for small returns.
In doing do, they risk serious illness. Many of them contract cancer while still in their 20s. In a country with a struggling health service, cancer will usually end in death.
Agbogbloshie is a by-product of the world’s ever-increasing appetite for new and newer electronic equipment, fuelled by an endless demand for the latest versions. Because recycling costs are high, unused goods often end up in such chaotic dumping grounds.
According to the United Nations, most of the e-waste produced by the world’s richest countries is not documented, or put through the correct disposal channels, creating the environmental and health risks that are seen in Ghana.
In 2011, Ghana took in 17,765 tonnes of e-waste from the UK – half of all e-waste dumped there that year. But Ghana is not alone. Similar dumping grounds can be found in China, India and Nigeria. Developing countries are typically the destination for cast-away electronics.
E-waste is increasing in size, rapidly. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN agency that deals with issues around communications technologies, estimated that 45 million tonnes was created in 2016, equal to 4,500 Eiffel Towers.
“The growing amount of e-waste is the result of several trends. The global information society is growing at great speed. It is characterised by an increasing number of users and rapid technological advances that are driving innovation, efficiency, and social and economic development.
“By 2017, close to half the world’s population uses the internet and most people in the world have access to mobile networks and services,” said the organisation’s last Global E-Waste Monitor report, warning that such waste is no longer generated just by the west.
“Many people own more than one information and communication technology (ICT) device, and replacement cycles for mobile phones and computers, and also for other devices and equipment, are becoming shorter.
“At the same time, disposable incomes in many developing countries are increasing and a growing global middle-class is able to spend more on electrical and electronic equipment, consequently generating more e-waste.
“Current trends suggest that the amount of e-waste generated will increase substantially [in coming]decades,” the ITU warned. Most waste is now generated in Asia, followed by Europe and the Americas. Africa – the end point for many devices – produces the least.
Just a fifth of the 45 million tonnes of equipment produced annually is properly tracked for collection and recycling, according to the UN, while the fate of the rest is unknown and likely to end up in areas such as Agbogbloshie.
Detailing the scale of the problem is also frustrated by the fact that just 41 countries have official statistics on e-waste. More countries are now enacting legislation to deal with the problem but enforcement of those laws remains uncertain, depending on the country in question.
Manufacturers need to do more to develop the circular economy – where resources are kept in circulation by better design of components, recycling, reusing, etc, while mitigating the environmental pollution,” said the E-Waste Monitor report.
There are, however, moves to tackle the global e-waste problem. In Guiyu in China, local residents say the air is not nearly as noxious as it once was in the area which has also become well-known as a dumping ground for e-waste.
Although the atmosphere is still thick with the smell of burning plastic, the authorities have industrialised the town’s recycling operations, rather than leaving it to sole operators. Since January 1st, the Chinese government blocked all imports of 24 types of waste.
For those who want to reduce their contribution, a few things can be done, besides WEE recycling. There is a substantial resale market for used mobile phones. More basically, people can resist the temptation of the inevitable upgrade.