Pollution in Agbogbloshie: Dealing with E-Waste – Lucas DeAngelo

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”.

The piles of scrap, waste, and trash that cover Agbogbloshie.

The piles of scrap, waste, and trash that cover Agbogbloshie. (news.com.au)

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).

Two young boys search for scraps to sell. (theatlantic.com)

Two young boys search for scraps to sell. (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

http://www.npr.org/2015/01/04/374780916/a-shadow-economy-lurks-in-an-electronics-graveyard

Inside a Massive Electronics Graveyard

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/12/inside-a-massive-electronics-graveyard/383922/

Agbogbloshie: The largest e-waste dumping site in the world

http://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/agbogbloshie-the-largest-ewaste-dumping-site-in-the-world/story-e6frflp0-1226873455884

Ten of the World’s Most Toxic Places Fight Back Against Pollution

http://www.weather.com/science/environment/news/toxic-countries-fight-back-pollution-photos

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8 thoughts on “Pollution in Agbogbloshie: Dealing with E-Waste – Lucas DeAngelo

  1. Jenna L.

    Very informative post! This is an important issue– one that we promote every day. It’s amazing to me that this is where our trash goes, and most people never even hear of it (I hadn’t). I’m once again shocked at the lack of responsibility from first world countries/ producers of e-waste.

    You did a great job giving an overview of why e-waste ends up where it does, who deals with it, and the impacts of it on humans and the land. You also did a good job reconnecting this current issue to the beginnings of illegal dumping, and how it hasn’t really changed much since then except, i’d assume, the amount of waste.

    I hope that someday, recycling centers can be built, but also that wealthier countries start taking responsibility for their actions by taking care of their own trash.

    Reply
  2. aciaramitaro

    Great read Luke! I have never heard of this place before reading this blog post, but I for sure will recognize this place in the future. It is crazy to think that the cellphones we protect and care about so much during use, get thrown on the side of a river in a third world countries after life. The pictures that you added to the blog also define and illustrate how bad the issue really is, and made the situation very eye opening to me. You also made a very bold connection to Steinberg which I loved , but when I was reading I mostly thought about the fresh kills landfill in NY. I also am interested in the burning of e-waste and if that is actually safe for the atmosphere, I guess time can only tell.

    Reply
  3. zak gentile

    Never seen a place like this in my life. It’s disgusting to think that something used by an American could be killing someone in another country. I can’t believe this is one of the most polluted places in the world! Thats incredible that its up there with a major polluters like China. The only question I really wanted to know was why is the government so poor? Why this town in this country? Great blog dude

    Reply
  4. Nick Rolli Post author

    What bothers me is that there are many people who complain about their jobs today, even working in an office behind a desk, making a lot of money. This article makes us realize that we have to be fortunate for what we have. These people are harming their health conditions by working with e-waste and toxic fumes and making barely any money.

    Reply
  5. Sarah Bartlett

    Lucas, I found myself shaking my head while reading your post. Americans are constantly wanting the best and the newest products coming out while mindlessly throwing out the old. It is so wrong that toxic waste is being illegally dumped into third world countries just because other countries do not want to pay the extra costs that come with responsibly disposing of it. Those countries suffer enough without having to be poisoned everyday but our waste. I think that more people should be aware of this and the new recycling facilities that prevent the open burning of e-waste. I am just curious how these recycling facilities work.

    Reply
  6. Clairee Putnam

    First off, let my start by saying I loved that you started the blog with a question. It grabbed my attention, and after reading it I really was curious where all of our waste goes! Second, that is heartbreaking to see an environment essentially turned into a waste pile. I also find it extremely disheartening that young boys are scrapping through the waste, causing long term damage to their health. The entire situation is terrible, hopefully Americans can find alternative ways to dispose of the waste.

    Reply
  7. christian smith

    Really great blog! The picture showing how disgusting that place is on the account of our country really makes you wonder what else we are doing to poor countries that we don’t know about! I think issues like this need to be brought to the attention of the public so that ideas on ways to prevent and cut down things like this!

    Reply
  8. katieneyland

    Great article! This is a great example of environmental injustice. Its appalling to think that people are forced to work and live in such conditions. Although you mentioned the law that prohibits burning e-waste, do you know of any alternative methods to getting rid of this waste? I would like to know who the countries are that dump this ewaste and how they will be held responsible/punished. This also struck me as similar to the transfer of fertility that we learned about in the US, but instead of fertility, its waste.

    Reply

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