The Digital Danger

Under the searing sun on a Saturday afternoon, thick plumes of black smoke rise into the air. Yakubu Mohammed defies the overbearing heat from the blazing fire to tend it. He smokes a cigarette as he stirs the burning cables with a long shard of wood. Surrounding him are men and children, with makeshift wagons carrying broken television, refrigerators and computers, all waiting for their turn to put their electronic scrap to flame.

Welcome to Accra’s electronic graveyard — Agbogbloshie. Covering several acres of land, the once beautiful wetland vegetation has transformed into an expansive garbage dumpsite, filled with tonnes of filth, making it Ghana’s biggest electronic ‘crematorium’.

Now 23, Yakubu has been burning electronic waste for close to eight years since he left his hometown Bolgatanga, 700 km away from the capital. Each day, Yakubu and his colleagues roam the streets to gather faulty electronics from homes and offices. They bring them to Agbogbloshie to dismantle the hardware, burn the electrical components to extract copper and other metals and resell them. This has become the only source of income for Yakubu and hundreds of other young people at Agbogbloshie, mostly economic migrants from the northern part of Ghana and other West African countries.

Jibril Agamba is 22 and just like Yakubu, he too is a native of Bolgatanga. He earns less than 30 cedis ($7) each day from burning scrap to resell the extracts. He tells me that he puts himself in harm’s way because he has to fend for himself and save money to look after his family in the north. “I would want another job but I can’t find any. How would I eat if I stop burning electronic waste?”

Health in peril

The work however, is taking a serious toll on their health. Under a nearby makeshift shed, made from the rigid foam that serves as insulation material in refrigerators, Yakubu tells me he barely sleeps at night. “My body becomes extremely hot at night. I drink lots of water but it doesn’t help. Sometimes when I spit, the colour is black.”

Yakubu shows me the scars on his arms and legs, left behind by the melting plastics that often pop and splatter as they burn. “I had to be taken to a hospital as a result. I quit for some weeks to find a different job but I didn’t get any.”

As we converse, his bloodshot-eyed colleague Ibrahim coughs profusely. “This is how our life has become, my brother. The smoke from the fire is killing us little by little, we know that, but there are no jobs. How would we survive if we stop?” he chips in.

In June 2016, the International Growth Centre collected blood samples of workers at Agbogbloshie and the tests revealed significant levels of lead. It showed that the burners in the electronic waste recycling chain had higher blood lead levels “due to their close daily proximity to plastic and heavy metals combustion.”

On a good day, Yakubu earns about 30 cedis ($7) from selling the extracts.

Greenpeace, an environmental group took soil and water samples from the site and found high concentrations of leads, phthalates and dioxins that are known to promote cancer and affect reproductive and hormonal systems. It is even more dangerous for children who grow up in this area as these chemicals affect the brain at its development stage, causing lower IQ.

A number of children, some as young as eight, scavenge on the dumpsite to look for broken toys as cattle graze nearby. A young girl carries a metallic basket of sachet water on her head. This dumpsite also doubles as a toilet station; I count about 12 men and children defecate openly on the garbage dumpsite. The smell from the pollution is overwhelming. The Odaw River which passes through Agbogbloshie is contaminated with garbage and electronic waste, negatively affecting marine life.

Stumbling Block

About 200 metres from the scrapyard sits Agbogbloshie market, bustling with the sale of vegetables, livestock and second-hand goods. Hundreds of tonnes of second-hand electronics packed in shipping containers arrive at Ghana’s ports daily, feeding the growing flea markets across the country.

Despite the ban on the movement of electronic waste between countries by the Basel Convention in 1992, the transport of electronic waste remains a pervading problem. As at November 2016, 184 countries had agreed to stop sending waste to other countries but the agreement remains only effective on paper.

Solving the problem is more than stopping Western exports of old electronics. Addressing high levels of unemployment among low skill workers is critical. Shutting it down would just shift what happens there to another location.

As Ghana migrates from the use of analogue to digital television in line with international standards, hundreds if not millions of television sets will end up at dumpsites like this one. The burning will continue to pose undeniable risks to human health and the climate, if safer ways of recycling electronic waste are not immediately explored.

Yakubu Mohammed recounts his story from under his shed.
Jibril Agamba braces the odds to fend for his family back home.
Indomitable Ibrahim