The attempt of the Ghanaian government at recycling E-waste and donations of old electronic devices has turned tragic since it is putting the health of poor people on the line and devastating the environment. Agbogbloshie, was once an idyllic landscape of wetlands and small lush farms, it has now become one of the most toxic places in the globe.
A flashback to the past, just eleven years ago, Agbogbloshie was a beautifully endowed paradise with rivers and a lagoon filled with a variety of fish. Currently, the river is no more. The fishermen have been left with nothing to catch except old computers and refrigerators.
Today, all you can see are thick, black clouds that hover ominously in the sky keeping away the sunlight for many kilometers. Agbogbloshie, which is home to some 50,000 people, is incidentally also the biggest E-waste landfills in the world, and many old electronics from around the world are dumped there in the guise of recycling.
According reports by the Blacksmith Institute, Agbogbloshie is the most toxic place in the world, in fact more toxic than Chernobyl. The dumping of electronic waste in poor countries and the highly toxic side effects has created a lot of attention from the media and policy makers for over two decades now. Unfortunately, despite attempts at decreasing the streams over the past 25 years, the transportation of E-waste has increased twofold, and Agbogloshie is a testimony to that.
Fifteen-year-old Santana Alhassan Suidu burns a bundle of cords to expose the precious copper wires inside in the Ghanaian slum of Agbogbloshie. Photo by Michael Ciaglo
THE MENACE OF URBAN MINING
Over 35,000 Ghanaians depend on the Agbogbloshie landfill to eke out a living. Alpha Hassan, who is now 35 years old has spent the last decade rummaging through the remains of old fridges, computer, cell phone and many other electronics in the search of old cables that he can burn so that he can extract the small quantities of copper contained in them. This odious task earns him a meager 300-1,000 cedis per month, which roughly converts to 100-320€.
Urban miners collect the metal remains after they have burnt electronic cables.
The activities in the landfills have severe health impacts. You do need to be a health professional to know that E-waste landfill is unhealthy. The workers in these sites suffer from chronic headaches and respiratory problems. According to radiation experts, electronics are filled with toxic chemicals and metals which the people living in the area end up breathing in. In addition, these compounds also contaminate water, the soil and consequently the entire food chain. Long-term exposure to these chemicals leads to long-term health complications that harm almost all organs, bones, affect fertility and IQ among many others.
IGNORANCE OF THE CASUALTIES
Sadly enough, the workers in the landfills and the general population are not sensitive to the health risks that they are faced with. Alpha Hassan who has a wife and six children to feed admits that he is not aware of pollution or even the health risks that he exposes himself to by working in the landfills. For him, it is battle of survival and he has to go there so that his family can live another day.
People are not the only casualties of the pollution in Agbogbloshie, livestock are also at risk to heavy metal poisoning among other illnesses.
The regulation of E-waste has become difficult due to the notion that it is mere trash that developed countries are eager to get rid of. However, as toxic as these wastes are, they present opportunities for making big money. For instance, just a ton of cell phones has as much gold as 70 tons of gold ore.
This therefore makes a total ban on E-waste unrealistic. The challenge is that the environmentally sound recycling in industrialized countries is ten times more expensive compared to the primitive low-cost recycling of the developing countries. As such, it would be more prudent to regulate recycling than merely banning this treasured refuse.
Safer e-waste recycling programs