Ghana's illicit trade in discarded electronics

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.

“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.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on Ghana:

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Ghana shoots for sports diversity

Life without remittances in Ghana