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INSIDE STORY: Ghana’s unending battle with electronic waste

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Read Time: 5 minutes

At the heart of Ghana’s Environmental concern is the illegal dumping and burning of electronic waste. Agbogbloshie represents a thriving e-waste industry surviving on the back of vulnerable young men. A tale of poverty and environmental injustice.

20-year-old Yakubu migrated from the Northern part of Ghana to Accra in search of greener pastures. One year on, he finds himself working on Africa’s biggest e-waste dumpsite at Agbogbloshie. “There is no work, I do this to survive. I earn money so I can take care of myself,” He said. Majority of young men working on the e-waste dumpsite share a similar story with Yakubu.

Yakubu working on e-waste dumpsite

The most difficult part of their job as scrap dealers is the dismantling process. They crush obsolete electronic equipment (TV, Fridge, Radio, Computers, etc.) into tiny pieces. They further extract electrical wires from the crushed gadgets and proceed to burn them to extract copper and other valuable metals.

Crushing of electronic gadgets.

Yakubu and his colleagues undertake this dangerous exercise without protective gear. They are exposed to the toxic fumes emanating from the uncontrolled burning of e-waste. They also handle the metal pieces with their bare hands. Most young men, aged 12 to 20 years who work on the dumpsite earn an average of GHC20 to 30 daily. They earn a pittance while working under hazardous conditions.

Burning of e-waste at Agbogbloshie

Booming E-waste industry
The illegal importation of obsolete electrical equipment remains a major setback in Ghana’s fight against e-waste. Ghana is a pivotal hub for trade of second-hand electronic equipment. A section of middle-class Ghanaians rely on these electronic gadgets due to their affordability. But there is a bigger price to pay. The majority of e-waste imported into Ghana arrive under the guise of second-hand equipment. E-waste is also dumped in Ghana through donation to churches and NGOs.

According to the UN Global E-waste Monitor 2020, 53.6 million metric tonnes of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019. The report also predicts that global e-waste (discarded products with a battery or electrical plug) will reach 74 million metric tonnes by 2030 — almost double of e-waste tonnage in just 16 years.

Environmental Impact
Environmental group, Green Peace tagged Agbogbloshie as one of the most toxic places on earth. A study conducted by Green Peace showed traces of lead, copper and other heavy metals seeping into the soil and water body nearby. The burning of e-waste at Agbogbloshie has rendered the land heavily polluted and unfertile. Aquatic life cannot survive in Odawna river due to the presence of toxic chemicals.

During the combustion of e-waste, air pollutants and green house gases are released into the atmosphere. This has a great impact on climate change. The continuous burning of e-waste at Agbogbloshie remains a blip in Ghana’s effort at tackling climate change.

Toxic fumes released into the atmosphere

Health Implications
The burning of e-waste poses significant health risks to the young scrap dealers at Agbogbloshie. Yakubu laments that he feels a burning sensation on his body when bathing. He also struggles to breathe at night. He attributes this to the long hours spent on the e-waste dumpsite. He tells Climate Insight that he uses some of the money earned to buy painkillers. “Sometimes, I can’t sleep at night and my whole body itches. I also feel my eyes burning,” He said.

Scrap dealers inhale lead, cadmium and dioxins from the combustion of e-waste and plastics-encased electronics at Agbogbloshie. Yakubu and his friends are highly exposed to cancer, respiratory diseases, nervous system dysfunction, to mention but a few.

Research conducted by the School of Public Health at the University of Ghana revealed a high level of contamination among lactating mothers. Breast milk samples collected from nursing mothers living within the e-waste dumpsite showed high traces of lead, arsenic and mercury. This proves fatal to the health of babies and nursing mothers. Milk samples from cattle also showed a high concentration of chemicals beyond the permissible limit.

Cattle on e-waste site

The Basel Action Network also discovered heavy amounts of dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls in chicken eggs at Agbogbloshie. Climate Insight spotted animals grazing and ingesting e-waste at the dumpsite.

About 50meters away from the e-waste dumpsite is one of Accra’s biggest markets -the Agbogbloshie market. The sediments resulting from the burning of e-waste are likely to settle on foodstuffs sold at the market.

Legal perspective
In 2016, Ghana passed the Hazardous and Electronic Waste Control Management Act 917. This law gives a clear roadmap on the control, management and disposal of hazardous, electronic waste and for related purposes. Act 917 prohibits the importation of electronic waste into the country. However, the implementation of Act 917 remains a challenge. Basel Convention, is an international treaty designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations and also prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. Ghana ratified the Basel Convention on May 30, 2003, and came into force on August 28, 2003. Ghana also remains a party to the Paris Agreement. The country made significant strides in tackling climate change. However, proper enforcement of laws prohibiting the importation of e-waste remains elusive.

Agbogbloshie e-waste dumpsite

Interventions by government

In March 2021, the Minister of Environment, Science, Technology, and Innovation, Dr. Kwaku Afriyie cut sod for the construction of a Handover Center (HOC) for defined Electronic waste (E-waste) types. Dr. Kwaku Afriyie hinted that the project would support Ghana to set up an incentive mechanism for the sound collection, recycling, and disposal of E-waste, to reduce the damage to the environment and human health.

In 2016, the government of Ghana formed partnership with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development to promote environmentally sound disposal and recycling of e-waste. The Ministry also launched the National Incentive Payment System for Electronic Waste (E-waste) to promote the collection and sustainable national recycling system in the country.

The Environmental Protection Agency of Ghana (EPA) launched the National Integrated E-Waste Management Scheme (NIEMS). The project explored the development and strengthening of value chains to demonstrate solutions for larger private sector engagement on e-waste management.

Despite the numerous interventions by the successive governments, there is a lack of policy consistency and continuity in addressing the e-waste menace.

Young men working on the e-waste dump site

Way forward

Founder of the Institute of Environment and Social Innovation (IESI), Dr. Ernest Opoku Boateng has called for a holistic approach to tackling the illegal dumping of e-waste in Ghana. “The policy, regulatory, behavioral and political conditions that enable the dumping and unsustainable management of electronic waste must be tackled. The environmental problems that exist on and beneath the surface must be addressed.” He added.

There must be consistent policy coordination in addressing the e-waste menace. State actors and law enforcement agencies must be empowered and well-resourced to effectively implement environmental laws. The continuous burning of electronic waste at Agbogbloshie poses serious environmental and public health concerns. Agbogbloshie represents a grave environmental injustice- a ticking time bomb.


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