Ghana Burns Its Health Away
“One of the biggest environmental crimes perpetrated on earth” is taking place right in Accra, Ghana’s capital, where a good 15% of the world’s e-waste is dumped – and burned! A new illustrated book, just published by the South African photographer, Pieter Hugo, has blown the lid off a crime perpetrated by pseudo-businesses masquerading as “recyclers”.
Not many residents of Ghana’s capital, Accra, go to the down market suburb of Agbogbloshie. But their health is sure to suffer from the toxic-laden smoke that spews into the atmosphere every day from a dump at Agbogbloshie where 15% of the world’s e-waste is burned by young men who make a living out of metals scavenged from computers before they are set on fire.
According to Pieter Hugo’s just published book, Agbogbloshie is the new dumping ground for discarded computers, mobile phones, computer games, printers, and other gadgetry from the developed world, including the USA, UK, Canada, and the Netherlands.
Ghana’s capital has thus become one of the largest repositories for toxic e-waste from around the world, which is burned by an army of unemployed young men engaged in a mad search for valuable metals such as copper, steel and aluminium, which they sell on the local market.
Ihe e-waste is too toxic for most landfills in Western countries and so it is shipped “away” by fraudulent businesses posing as recyclers. But it turns the area in Accra into a poisonous wasteland contaminating the air, soil, and groundwater for miles around.
Ihe haunting images in Pieter Hugo’s book were all taken at Agbogbloshie Market. They capture some of the thousands of disenfranchised men and boys who harvest the metals from the computer components nd circuit boards before destroying them in the same place where they live and keep their cattle!
As Hugo’s publishers, Prestel, put it: “Agbogbloshie is a place where memories and information stored in countless hard drives turn into black smoke and molten plastic… It is a fragile co-existence of humanity and absurdity in a place marked by a profound inhumanity.”
Some of the discarded computers, mobile phones, and other gadgetry have come from as far afield as the School District of Philadelphia (USA), the Dutch Environmental Protection Department (Netherlands), the National Trust (UK), the US Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Diplomatic Telecommunications Service, the US Army, the State of Connecticut Department of Mental Health (USA), the Saint Vincent de Paul Residence of the Bronx (New York), the US Forest Service, Barclays Bank, Prince George’s County Corrections Department (USA), Wandsworth Borough Council (London, UK), Rockville School Division (USA), the UK Ministry of Defence, and the US Environmental Protection Agency.
In a powerful essay accompanying Hugo’s book, Jim Puckett, an environmental health and justice activist for 22 years who formerly worked for Greenpeace as its international toxic director, pulls no punches. His piece, entitled “A Place Called Away” is so enlightening that it deserves to be quoted at length here. He writes:
“There are questions lying strewn about the Agbogbloshie dump and in other such places I have visited in the last 10 years. They are the places where [the developed world’s] old techno-trash waste has been tossed up by the hidden currents of today’s consumerism and commerce, and has found a strange resting place…
“In these global waysides that we might know only as ‘away’, as in we threw it away’, the questions beg for answers from each of us, sitting comfortably (as I do now) behind LCD screens, tapping our keyboards and touchpads. They cry out from the boneyards where these fallen icons of our proud Information Age lie as rotting fruit, the progeny of centuries of technological advancement… Indeed, what have we wrought?
“Machines that could, just months before, process a billion instructions per second, send a message clear around the world at the stroke of a key, or hold a library of books in a palm-sized drive, have found their end as metal and plastic skeletons in the world’s most sorrowfully poor communities, to be subjected to hammer and fire, emitting deadly smoke and fume. Shouldn’t there be a law?”
According to Puckett, the Agbogbloshie dump is just one of the increasingly common inglorious final resting places for some of the Western world’s proudest products. It is here that the relics of the Information Age, with their miraculous microscopic circuits, transistors, capacitors, and semi-conductors are bludgeoned and torched with Stone Age technology. The residents at the Agbogbloshie dump make their living first by hauling and then by smashing, gutting, and burning the television sets and computers in a most un-green form of recycling’, to recover metals.
“This material,” Puckett says, “made its arrival on African shores just some days earlier as cargo inside 40-foot intermodal corrugated containers … Around 400 of these, each containing about 600 computers or monitors, arrive each month at the Port of Tema, Ghana, from the UK, USA, Canada and countless other rich and developed countries.
“They may achieve a quick stay on the floors and shelves of hundreds of secondhand markets throughout Accra. But those that do not sell – about half, even if they work perfectly – are then picked up by small boys pushing heavy carts and hauled several miles to the outskirts of town, to be thrown away — to Agbogbloshie’s scavengers.”
In the last 30 years, the production and consumption of information technology has grown astronomically worldwide. As sales boom for computer games, printers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), electronic toys, MP3 players, digital cameras, GPS devices, camcorders and tablet readers, they come with a similarly unprecedented high rate of obsolescence.
“Whereas consumer products of the past: refrigerators, toasters, old TV sets and radios might function and satisfy us for decades, today’s electronic gadgetry is seen as obsolete within two to three years,” Puckett says. “These two factors – hyper-consumption and hyper-obsolescence — conspire to make the electronics industry very wealthy. They satisfy our ego desires, our need for speed, our competitive edge, but they also create mountains of e-waste.
“The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimates that we now produce 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste per year globally. Put another way, that is over £100 billion. Of that amount, 15 per cent is estimated to be arriving annually at Tema port, where much then finds its way to Agbogbloshie.
“Even if this new species of techno-trash were just regular old ‘trash’, it would be a serious nuisance and major drain of natural resources. But it’s much worse than that. In reality, electronic waste is hazardous waste. Therein lies the truly ‘permanent error’, one with an everlasting impact.”
According to Puckett, the e-waste dumped at Agbogbloshie has the capacity to seriously harm human health and the environment. “A normal-sized cathode ray tube (CRT) contains around seven pounds of lead, a toxic metal, and the inside of the tube is coated with a toxic phosphor powder often containing cadmium compounds and toxic rare earth metals.”
Puckett continues: “The circuit boards contain lead-tin solders, which are also toxic. The plastics are impregnated with brominated flame-retardants which are persistent chemicals of increasing concern, accumulating and persisting in our own bodies. Other toxic elements or chemicals found inside electronic equipment include mercury, beryllium, chromium, barium, selenium and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). And thus the mountain ranges of e-waste arising on every continent represent an unforeseen toxic chemical crisis.”