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Agbogbloshie: The African dump for electronic waste. Is there a clear future?
Maybe you have never heard of it – maybe you are trying and struggling to even pronounce it. This suburb of Accra, Ghana is a former wetland and home to around 40,000 inhabitants. But it is better known by its nickname, "Sodom and Gomorrah."
With greater use of electronics comes greater disposal. Almost 50 million metric tons of electronic waste is generated worldwide every year. A large volume of it arrives in developing countries from the “developed” world. And according to the UN, up to 90% of the world’s electronic waste, worth nearly $19 billion, is illegally traded or dumped. Or, in our case, “donated.” But about 80% of the donated goods from the containers arriving every month to the harbor close to Accra are no longer usable.
The living conditions are tough and the crime, hazardous waste, toxic chemicals, pollution and bad or no sanitation of this slum setting make everyday life a living hell. But the reality is that this everyday hell is a way of making a living. Because the discarded electronic devices seen by many as scrap are seen by residents as a source of valuable materials (copper, brass, ferrous material, aluminum from cables and appliances or even gold from computers and circuit boards).
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Large amounts of waste are being burnt every day, mostly by young men and even children. Women and girls just wander around and bring water and food to the men. Amnesty International predictions say that from 55,000 to 79,000 adults are living in this slum and that about 40% of the scavengers are children. During this process, toxins leak into the environment – into the soil and water or even becoming airborne – therefore posing a risk to humans, animals and groceries. But for them, the amount of around five to ten Ghanaian cedis ($1,20 – $2,50) they make per day and the pledge they've made to support their kin they've left at home outweigh these cons.
There are so many old monitors and keyboards that people even use them to build their houses or for bridges over water.
The most alarming thing is that according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, the volume of discarded e-products worldwide in 2017 is expected to be 33 percent higher than in 2012 and weigh the equivalent of eight Great Pyramids of Giza!
Agbogbloshie is often compared to the Guiyu e-waste site in China. From time to time, they exchange the first place ranking (no place for drumroll here) for the biggest e-waste dump. In the words of Australian filmmaker David Fedele: "Agbogbloshie is basically 24 hours a day, seven days a week of burning old electronics to remove the plastics, in order to get small amounts of metal that can be salvaged and resold. A constant state of dark toxic smoke – and the smell is unimaginable and never-ending."
People are doing it because they would struggle as farmers, and because the waste is already there; so why not benefit from it? So what could be the resolution? Of course, we could stop producing e-waste, but that is a utopian dream. Less utopian: no dismantling by uneducated, untrained people. There are interesting projects emerging worldwide that could be adapted for Agbogbloshie. For example, separator machines which involve no burning, recycling centers or reverse vending machines, which give money for used product inserted. There are already some organizations (Pure Earth, GreenAd, Agbogbloshie Makerspace and RecyHub, to name a few) building the first ecological facilities on-site and providing education and guidance, which is very promising.
Africa has become a dumping ground for the west’s electronic waste. How many mobile phones, computers, televisions, etc. have you owned in your life? What have you done with them when they no longer worked or when you simply wanted a newer model?
And did you think about where they might end up?
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