December 5, 2012
Vol: 19 No: 49

Feature

Africa’s digital inferno

via: street-papers.org / INSP

The electronic devices many Westerners discard end up in places like Agbogbloshie, Africa’s biggest e-waste dump, where toxic fumes endanger workers’ health

At Agbogbloshie, Africa’s biggest e-waste dump, a lack of proper tools and disposal methods for electronic waste puts workers’ health at serious risk.

Photos by: Philip Hedemann

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Karim thrashed at the flickering yellow and green flames with an iron rod. The fire threw out glistening sparks, acrid smoke bubbled up. Karim’s eyes watered, his lungs rattled. When the toxic fire was finally extinguished, a charred clump of wire was all that remained of the bulky old computer. Karim might get two Ghanaian cedis for it, less than a Euro. In the short term it’s enough

to survive, but in the long run he will probably be killed by this work in Agbogbloshie, Africa’s biggest e-waste dump in the Ghanain capital of Accra.

In the rich countries where the digital scrap comes from, no one cares. So long as consumers in the developed world want ever more electrical devices, ever faster; so long as they do not want to pay for the proper disposal; and so long as ruthless criminals can make good money, trade in the dangerous waste will continue to flourish.

While his lump of copper and plastic cooled down, Karim lit a bent cigarette. That would probably be the healthiest thing that the 18-year-old would inhale. The throbbing head, burning eyes, scraping in the throat, pain in the chest: Karim did not know what hurt most. But he knew where it came from: From the toxic smoke that billowed over the dump day and night.

On a crunching carpet of broken screen glass, the trademark insignias piled up, symbols of a life that Karim would never know. Discarded TV sets, computers, DVD players, kitchen devices and telephones. Philips, Sony, Nokia, Dell and Canon, they have all landed here.

Karim had no clue how to start a laptop, how to heat up soup in a microwave or how to operate a scanner. But he knew how to break them with a stone, a rod or simply with the help of gravity, and how to set them alight with refrigerator isolation foam.


Wasteland of e-waste

The United Nations estimates that between 20 million and 50 million tons of e-waste are produced globally every year. In most industrialized countries, there are laws to ensure that the garbage of the wealthy is recycled or disposed of in an environmentally responsible way.

This, however, is expensive, and not very popular with consumers and traders. Therefore a lot of e-waste ends up in garbage bins. This is not only bad for the environment, but, in times of rising prices, it is also economically unwise. “Through illegal export we lose precious resources,” said Eric Rehbock, CEO of the Federal Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Disposal in Bonn, Germany. “Often the devices are dismantled unprofessionally in the import countries. That leads to severe environmental pollution and serious health problems for the workers.”

Instead of being recycled in the countries of origin, e-waste is often declared as trading goods or charitable aid and exported to Asia or Africa. Often, it goes to Ghana’s main harbor, which is a two-hour drive from Agbogbloshie. Containers full of electronics arrive there every day.

“Sometimes the ruthless traders in Europe or America put some half-functional devices in the containers, in order to declare it as used goods,” said Emmanuel Dogbevi, a Ghanaian journalist. “But the vast majority is just rubbish.”

Dogbevi was one of the first to report on the immoral trade between the first and the third worlds. “Recently, a few people who were involved in the intrigues of the e-waste mafia were arrested, but still, not enough is being done against it. In Ghana, many politicians deny the problem, and in Europe, politicians are obviously not too keen to tackle this multimillion-dollar business,” he said.

All industrialized countries except the U.S. signed the Basel Convention. This international framework was put in place to ensure that e-waste is only brought to countries where it can be recycled in an environmentally sound way. But up to two-thirds goes to developing countries, where the waste is not treated properly.


Life, death and lead

Worker Ibrahim was shaken by a coughing fit while burning an old washing machine. Sometimes there was blood in the 21-year-old’s phlegm. Like most of the young men and boys who worked on the dump that locals often call “Sodom and Gomorrah,” he seemed to be quite mellow from the toxic fumes. The inner effects were often worse than the cuts that covered workers’ feet and hands in Agbogbloshie. Hardly anyone could afford gloves and shoes, let alone a mask.

Greenpeace took soil and ash samples in Agbogbloshie four years ago. In some samples, the concentration of lead was more than 100 times higher than normal, the concentration of cadmium 50 times higher. The environmental organization also detected many other chemicals.

“Many of them are highly toxic, some may affect children’s developing reproductive systems, while others can affect brain development and the nervous system,” said Kevin Bridgen, who conducted the survey.

Nothing is known yet about the possible long-term effects.

“Once, some scientist came and took our blood samples to test them in a lab, but we never heard anything of them again,” said Abdulai Abdulrahman, chairman of the association of the scrap workers. 

A little river writhed slowly through the bleak dump. Its water was black and without life. Where it flowed into the Atlantic, fishermen had fewer and fewer fish and more and more e-waste in their nets. For years, environmentalists have called for a ban on the shipping of e-waste to Africa. Karim, who burned it every day, did not want to hear that: “What shall I live on, if you keep your waste for yourself?”

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