Between December of 2014 and January of 2015, Antonio Pérez, photographer and professor at the communication, new media and journalism CIEE program in Seville, visited one of the most populated places on the planet, the electronic waste dumpsite of Agbogbloshie in Ghana. The result of his interaction with the hundreds of ‘Recyclants’ who work there was shown last September through an exhibition and a publication.
Refrigerators, cars, computers or cell phones that once belonged to Spanish or German citizens will end up in places like Agbogbloshie. Each year, the obsolescence of electric and electronic components generates more than 40 million tons of waste all over the world. The main producers of these residues are the United States and the European Union. Only a small part of this scrap metal —around 15.5% according to records from 2014— is recycled using safe and efficient means. What about the rest? Each month, more than 600 containers arrive at the port of Tema, in Ghana. Its capital, Accra, houses one of the largest dumpsites for electronic waste on the planet. This is not the digital dumpsite’s only dubious honor. Its pollution levels surpass that of places like Chernobyl (Ukraine), Kalimantan (Indonesia) or the river Matanza-Riachuelo (Argentina). Agbogbloshie is the most polluted place in the world.
Ghana, a West African country currently experimenting an intense economic growth, is an important center for the reception and recycling of electronic waste. In the digital dumpsite of Agbogbloshie, neighborhood of Accra, thousands of people living in extreme poverty and severely insalubrious conditions have been dismantling, recuperating, weighing and reselling parts and metals obtained from electronic debris for years. The sustainability of the planet, the cost of consumerism and the perpetuation of inequalities amongst regions converge in this technological cemetery of the West. United Nations includes Agbogbloshie in the list of the world’s most dangerous places.
Entire families work twelve hours per day. Being a ‘recyclant’ is a job with which they can earn a bit more than two euros per day, doubling the country’s minimum wage. Women and girls carrying large basins on their heads offer fruit, biscuits and other products. A small city functions inside this dumpsite-city.
Authorities in Ghana have proposed the demolition of Agbogbloshie several times. However, their repressive approach is generating doubts amongst the civil society. The NGO Green Advocacy proposes the creation of recycling points, as well as fostering awareness amongst the population or teaching them less harmful ways to recycle. At the same time, the Agbogbloshie Market Platform (AMP), which identifies their recycling with technological innovation, aims at transforming Agbogbloshie into a creative and sustainable lab. The health of more than 40.000 people are meanwhile suffering the direct consequences of the waste.
A network of intermediaries, traders, repairers and secondhand sellers select the devices, check if they still work, and send the junk from the rich countries to circulate in the local market. Every item that does not arrive complete —thus violating the Basel Convention, that forbids the transportation of dangerous waste amongst countries, including useless electronic devices— as well as those that die after a second use, end up at local dumpsites like the one at Agbogbloshie. Men, women and children extract copper, aluminum and other materials —using methods which are harmful both for themselves and for the environment— that are then shipped to factories and refineries of the developed countries.
The toxic heavy metals produced by the electronic waste are absorbed by Agbogbloshie’s air, soil and waters, where alarming quantities of lead, aluminum and copper have been found in the blood, urine and breast milk of its inhabitants.
Twenty years ago, Agbogbloshie was an ecosystem rich on animal and vegetal species. Over the past ten years, it has become one of the largest cemeteries of electronic waste in Africa.
International exporting of dangerous waste was forbidden in 1989. However, the illegal exporting of electronic waste, the false donation of devices (that sometimes do not function), or the fact that the need to bridge the digital gap is used as an excuse to get rid of old electronic devices, have only made the situation worse.
Many of the discarded devices have lost their commercial value, others still have some, either because they still function or because they contain valuable materials that can be recycled. However, getting rid of out-of-use products is complicated and, above all, expensive. That is why they’re loaded in the ports of developed countries on containers that are shipped to developing countries, like Ghana.
Electronic waste is for some the only source of income in Ghana, which is the reason why —in addition to the lack of international commitment—Agbogbloshie is witness to child labor, contamination and safety threats. While still demanding urgent attention, many of Agbogbloshie’s inhabitants defend its capacities and work in order to build a sustainable future. •