Ghana Burns Its Health Away

Ghana Burns Its Health Away
  • PublishedMay 12, 2011

Electronics manufacturers in the developed world know that the only way they can maintain such staggering profits while addressing these troublesome waste mountains is to be seen as actively promoting recycling. But instead of seeking to produce longer-lived, upgradable products, they are encouraging the pattern of “buy, recycle, buy, recycle” in rapid succession.
As the problems mount, “governments in rich countries,” says Puckett, “are slowly learning that e-waste is too toxic for most landfills, so they call for extended producer responsibility’ — which means manufacturers must become financially and legally responsible for managing their products when they are no longer used.

“Therefore, all over the developed world, the idea of ‘divert from landfill to recycling’ has become policy — and increasingly, the law. But until recently, the manufacturers and governments cared little about what form that recycling would take or where it would happen.”

As a result, the developed world’s e-waste can migrate halfway around the world to be smashed and burned by young boys struggling to survive. In short, the international trade in toxic e-waste is driven by what economists call “cost externalisation” — a fancy term, Puckett says, “for finding somebody else to pay for a problem you created yourself”.

To maximise profits, Puckett reveals, many fraudulent businesses posing as re-cyclers “eternalise” the costs by simply shipping the e-waste to poor countries which lack national infrastructure, environmental laws, enforcement and regulatory frameworks, and social safety nets.

“Sadly such dumping is the global norm, not the exception,” Puckett points out. “In the US, it is estimated that about 80% of old computers, TVs and other electronic equipment given over to ‘recyclers’ are then simply exported. In Europe, the European Commission claims that 54% of the electronic waste stream is unaccounted for and likely goes to substandard treatment or export.

“In this way, the high-tech ‘effluent of the affluent’ is flooding the globe.”

In Accra, the environmental journalist Mike Anane has been gathering the asset tags of the e-waste from the Agbogbloshie dump for several years. Puckett says: “Whenever I see such tags, I recall the words of a Los Angeles government official who, when asked by the Los Angeles Times where their old computers went, replied: ‘I don’t know where they go. They go away.’

I found her agency’s asset tags on old computers in the infamous e-waste dumping ground of Guiyu in China.”

Incidentally, the dumping of toxic waste in Africa is not new. The most notorious case happened in Nigeria in the late 1980s when 8,000 drums of highly poisonous chemical waste from Italian companies were dumped at Koko. This incident and others led to the creation in 1989 of the UN treaty known as the Basel Convention. The treaty was born of African outrage at being used as the world’s toxic dump. However, it failed to create what the developing world wanted: a full ban on the export of toxic waste by the developed to developing countries.

In 1995, an amendment known simply as the Basel Ban Amendment, was made to the treaty to forbid the export of all forms of hazardous wastes for any reason. But the Basel Amendment is yet to enter into force 16 years after its enactment, though it has been ratified by 69 countries and has been implemented by 34 of the 41 developed countries to which the Amendment’s export ban applies. Only the US, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Japan, South Korea and Canada have refused to honour the Amendment in law or policy.

The US, in particular, has not even bothered to ratify the original Basel Convention, let alone the Amendment. But, one of the obligations of the Convention is that no signatory country is allowed to trade in hazardous waste with a non-signer like the US (without a separate, specially signed agreement). This means there are about 140 countries that are legally unable to accept hazardous wastes from the US, Ghana being one of them.

That notwithstanding, American discarded computers and other electronic floatsam are still arriving in Ghana and ending up at the Agbogbloshie dump -illegally. “It is one of the biggest environmental crimes perpetrated on earth,” Puckett says. “African and other developing countries should take steps to protect themselves. Countries like Ghana have ratified the Basel Convention but they have failed to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment and have not put the Basel Convention obligations into their own national laws. This makes it hard to prosecute illegal imports after they arrive.”

As Oladele Osibanjo, chemistry professor at the University of Ibadan and Basel Convention Regional Coordinating Centre director in Nigeria, says: “The problem with African countries is that they ratify these conventions, but they do not domesticate the laws. So, even if you sign Basel, it’s not in the laws.”

But Puckett insists that the primary responsibility lies with the exporting countries, a point agreed by Osibanjo. “Hazardous wastes,” the Nigerian says, “should never go from developed to developing countries. We live in a global village with a common destiny. We must be sure that all sides are safe at the end of the day.”

Puckett has the last word, appealing to his people in the developed world: “Wherever we live, we must realise that when we sweep things out of our lives and throw them away … they don’t ever disappear as we might like to believe. We must know that ‘away’ is in fact a place.

“In a world where cost externalisation is made all too easy by the pathways of globalisation, ‘away’ is likely to be somewhere people are impoverished, disenfranchised, powerless, and too desperate to resist the poison for the realities of their poverty. ‘Away’ is likely to be a place where people and environments will suffer for our carelessness, our ignorance or indifference. Away is a place called Agbogbloshie.

Written By
New African

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