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Ghana's illicit trade in discarded electronics

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

“There is a legitimate trade in exporting computers that work to Ghana and Africa, where they get a second life,” said Scarlet Elworthy of the British Environmental Agency. “Either that process is being abused on this end, or they’re not actually being used at their destination for their originally intended purpose.”

Exporting e-waste is illegal in most developed countries, but, problematically, exporting secondhand gear is not.

“It’s difficult to even define e-waste,” Holst said. “Is it just monitors and computers? Is it televisions? When does it become e-waste — when there’s two months left on the equipment? Or is it e-waste even before then?

“In order to stop this you need a legislative framework, and if you can’t even define what e-waste is, it makes it harder to control,” Holst said.

That hasn’t prevented African nations from trying. Nigeria introduced laws clamping down on e-waste importation, with unremarkable results.

“There’s a lot of loopholes,” Anane said. “It hasn’t been effective.”

In Ghana, meanwhile, environmental officials are holding e-waste workshops, discussing legislative answers to a predicament that seems to defy easy categories.

“We can talk about sanctions, about restricting the quality of what you can bring in,” said Kwabena Badu Yeboah, program director for Ghana's Environmental Protection Agency, adding that from an environmental perspective, the ideal would be an absolute ban on secondhand imports.

“If it’s used, it’s used,” he said. “We should not allow used computers or fridges into the country at all.”

Back at Aglogloshie, the task of regulating e-waste falls to the junkyard’s senior members, like Muniru Fuseini, who chastises a younger man for burning a spaghetti mound of wires near an open sewer. “I want them to stop burning it here,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”

He mentions an agreement among the yard’s laborers to incinerate their wares on a far away and empty lot, a decision they apparently reached in the absence of state authority.

“No one from government came to tell us,” he said. “They just used their minds. People will get sick.”

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Ghana wants hawkers off the streets

Ghana shoots for sports diversity

Life without remittances in Ghana