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Ghana's illicit trade in discarded electronics

Migrant workers harvest parts to sell internationally amid concerns about the environmental impact.

ACCRA, Ghana — The VCRs and shattered radios entered the country optimistically labeled as secondhand gear, but they soon found their way to Aglogloshie, the place where electronics have autopsies.

Near the entrance, Abdul Rahim, 29, sits behind a wall of battered desktop computers, popping out bits of hardware with a screwdriver. “I open and remove the parts, the processor, some VGA, sound card,” he said, flipping out an AMD processor he’ll sell for about 80 cents. “This is where we’re getting our daily bread.”

Nearby, men — no women work at Aglogloshie dump — chisel copper from the guts of discarded refrigerator motors. Children pull carts full of keyboards. In the distant field, teenage boys burn spools of electrical wires, melting away the rubber casing to access the copper cables inside.

These men are part of a global and moderately illicit trade that has hurdled over borders and legislative controls with unsettling ease. Migrant workers come to salvage a last scrap of value from the world’s discarded electronic waste, mostly from the United States and Europe, said  environmental journalist Mike Anane. The minerals they extract are traded openly on international markets — “just like gold,” he said.

Even the workforce is a transient commodity — virtually all of the laborers here have come from Ghana’s impoverished and underdeveloped north. The materials they extract will end up in the storerooms of local European and Lebanese traders, but not before Igbo middlemen, from eastern Nigeria, make the connection.

Almost none of them were born here, and few will stay longer than a year or two.

There’s a living to be made in scrapyards like this, burning, melting and breaking down old gadgetry, but environmentalists worry that the pervasive practice is devastating the air and water of West African cities like Accra. The average appliance in Aglogloshie is a repository of materials both precious and perilous: copper, aluminum, silver and gold, as well as lead, arsenic and mercury.

“Environmentally, these things are pumped into ponds, streams, rivers,” Anane said. “And these are persistent metals. They don’t only bio-accumulate, they also persist in the environment and in the food chain for a very long time.”

The trade recently has become something of a cause celebre for environmentalists and human rights activists, as well as a digital age metaphor for how modernity has exploited the African continent. And yet little is quantifiably known about the trade, about how e-waste winds up in the ports of Ghana and Nigeria, or even how much.

“We know that a lot of this stuff is not accounted for in the EU, but we don’t know where it goes when it goes missing,” said editor Benjamin Holst of DanWatch, an environmental investigating group.

Nor it is known who ships it. Several agencies sponsoring ongoing investigations, including Holst’s, have an idea: recycling companies that find it cheaper to dump in Africa than to follow local guidelines; Ghanaian and Nigerian expats who make money on the side shipping cheap gear home; and non-governmental organizations that donate shoddy computers and phones.

For the moment, however, environmental agencies in Africa and elsewhere find themselves toiling over solutions to an only faintly understood problem.