Have you ever stopped to think about what happens when you trade in a piece of technology for a newer version? Is it recycled? Is it kept in a warehouse somewhere? Have you ever heard of a place called Agbogbloshie?
Imagine only twenty years ago Agbogbloshie, a town located just outside Accra in Ghana, was a thriving, swampy wetland once home to the national soccer stadium. If you were to travel to this town today do you think you would be able to recognize it? Not a chance. Agbogbloshie is now the largest e-waste dumping site in the world (news.com.au) that brings in hundreds of thousands of tons of electronic waste and scraps annually. Living conditions in Agbogbloshie are so poor that the town has earned the nickname of “sodom and Gomorrah”.
Illegal dumping in third world countries often comes as a result of countries refusing to pay the extra costs that come with responsibly disposing e-waste. Instead, this waste is often thrown in to shipping containers labeled “development aid” or “second-hand products” (news.com.au) and sent to developing countries to deal with, countries like Ghana. According to Interpol: “One of every three shipping containers inspected leaving Europe for the developing world is packed with illegal electronic waste” (theatlantic.com). The same article on theatlantic.com also adds that the average American is responsible for producing sixty-six pounds of electronic junk per year.
Once the waste reaches Agbogbloshie, each piece of waste is stripped for valuable metals by boys as young as ten years old (npr.org) without tools, without safety regulations, and without training. These electronics are then thrown in large piles along with tires and refrigerator insulation, which is lit on fire to burn away the unwanted materials materials. What’s left is a bundle of copper, or aluminum, or whatever metals the previously discarded TV, computer, or stereo contained (npr.org). The workers then sell what metals remain to scrap dealers who but the scraps for $2 per lbs (copper), $0.60 per lbs (aluminum), and so on, all for about an hour of work (theatlantic.com).
Boys and young men are almost forced to participate in this low wage work to pay for things we often take for granted. In Ghana these boys and young men are working to pay for school fees, lunches, exams, and books (npr.org). Ghana is also a country struggling financially, which makes finding work quite difficult: “The government’s so broke it had to ask the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, the electricity blackouts now last 12 hours at a time, and inflation has suddenly made everything from food to school fees prohibitively expensive” (theatlantic.com). These financial difficulties developing countries often face contribute to an increasing supply of cheap labor.
Not only are boys and young men working for almost nothing, they encounter incredibly dangerous working conditions. The e-waste that the workers are working to dispose of leak: ” . . . lead, mercury, arsenic, zinc, and flame-retardants. They’ve been found in toxic concentrations in the air, water, and even on the fruits and vegetables at the wholesale market” (theatlantic.com). Exposure to the chemicals has been found to lead to respiratory problems, chronic nausea, anorexia, cancers, burns, cuts, etc. (news.com.au, npr.org).
Another example of illegally dumping e-waste is noted in Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth. The author explains how the United States and other industrialized countries by the 1980’s began dumping e-waste in countries like China, Pakistan, and India. This waste was then dealt with in the same manner, by open flame with little to no safety regulations so that the metals could be stripped. Water samples near a village in China called Guiyu, ” . . . revealed lead at 2,400 times the recommended safe level” (Steinberg 237).
Agbogbloshie is currently facing a crisis that has people calling it one of the most polluted areas in the world, a town even more at risk than Guiyu, China. However, there have been recent improvements that have Agbogbloshie back on the right path with a newly created recycling facility that prevents the open burning of e-waste (weather.com). If these recycling facilities continue to be created, replacing the barbaric method of openly burning e-waste, Agbogloshie might have a chance to remove itself from the list of the most polluted areas in the world.
For more information:
Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History, 3rd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)
A Shadow Economy Lurks in an Electronic Graveyard
Inside a Massive Electronics Graveyard
Agbogbloshie: The largest e-waste dumping site in the world
Ten of the World’s Most Toxic Places Fight Back Against Pollution