By ANUVABE MANDELA YAW
In 2019, Ghana produced 52,000 tons of e-waste of which the informal sector used the well-established door-to-door collection method to collect and recycle 93% to 97% of it.
But improper disposal techniques, such as burning plastics and cables in the open or spilling battery or cartridge liquids onto the ground, expose people and workers to dangerous substances including furans, dioxins, heavy metals, and other persistent organic pollutants.
Most of these e-waste products of which 30% to 40% do not function, enter the country as wrongly declared second-hand goods or working devices for donation. And then end up at the infamous Agbogbloshie scrapyard, considered the world’s largest e-waste dump site just few minutes away from Agbogbloshie market – the vibrant foodstuff market in the heart of Ghana’s capital, Accra and on the Korle Lagoon of the Odaw River. The toxic smoke emanating from the dump site casts a toxic shadow over Old Fadama – a slum settlement extending over 31 hectares with a population close to 80,000 people of who most are workers who migrated from northern Ghana and other countries such as Togo, Benin, and Nigeria in search of a better life. Unsurprisingly, many of these workers are the same people responsible for the toxic smoke. These workers are collectors, dismantlers, scrap dealers, burners, refurbishes and repairers, intermediaries, blacksmiths, and toolmakers. Wounds from burns, back problems, respiratory issues, persistent nausea, and incapacitating headaches — caused by the poisonous air pollution and dangerous working conditions are common in the area. The dangers are enormous and glaring yet overlooked by the workers for reasons such as unemployment and lack of opportunities. This, Godfred and Kojo both from Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region, who have been burning wires for three and five years respectively, say was what pushed them into the business. “I came here from Bolga to learn how to burn wires to extract copper for collectors and scrap dealers to sell so I can earn a living, and now I make 40 cedis on a good day,” Kojo said, before narrating how he influenced Godfred to join him. However, the problem of e-waste starts way before it gets to Godfred and Kojo or the other “burner boys” as they are known, to burn to extract insulated copper wire which is greatly sought after by large and small recyclers who are interested in the metal but not the insulation. Over the years, the problem has been thought to be caused by the western world with some claiming the site to be the dump site for Europe’s electronic waste.
However, a recent study published in the ScienceDirect Journal by Karoline Owusu-Sekyere states that the main e-waste stream does not come from importing e-waste for dismantling purposes but arises locally from new and used electronic equipment. To confirm this, Ahmed from Tamale – a collector for over two decades, says “these products come from all over Ghana, and even from some other West African countries like Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Togo.” “I have been doing this job since 2001, and we get goods from all over the country of which we pay about 100 cedis based on the quantity to collect and pick.” Ahmed’s newest recruit has already sustained a hand injury three months in the collecting business and has no desire to follow in the footsteps of his master. “The dangers are too much in this job, I am already hurt as you can see and that’s not the only thing. I have difficulty breathing from all the smoke around here and must take in pain relievers to ease my back pain before I can sleep at night,” he narrates pointing at his bandaged hand and end by saying that he hopes to quit soon.
Unlike Ahmed’s newest recruit, it seems everyone else from the market to the burning site is used to the stench emanating from the Korle Lagoon and the toxic smoke from the dump site. A group of “burner boys” playing football with girls selling water, eggs and bofrot (Ghanaian doughnut) beneath the thick toxic smoke on a hot afternoon paints a perfect picture of the situation. A graduate teacher trainee awaiting posting, Gilbert, now a collector, says they are aware of the health risk but have no choice. He goes on to explain how the exposure has affected his health: “I go to the clinic for constant checks, I was advised to quit due to the impact on my lungs but I can’t because this is what I used to complete my training and survive on.” Despite these warnings, and health hazards associated with the manual recycling of e-waste, Gilbert and his colleagues do not put on any form of personal protective equipment. This is worrying as findings from research studies on the site show that undesirable health implications such as musculoskeletal pain and various adverse cardiovascular and respiratory health outcomes are prevalent. Open air burning using styrofoam food containers and car tires creates very harmful ambient condition. These conditions expose children like 15-year-old Franko on the site and adult workers as well as their family members and the general population to excessive doses of hazardous substances.
The situation in Agbogbloshie is troubling and a danger not to only the dumpsite and scrapyard workers, but residents in the surroundings communities and the public as the market serves most households in the capital and beyond. The local authority and government must move away from just demolishing the site, which has proved futile over the years, to more practical solutions like building proper recycling plants and creating better job opportunities. It is time to salvage the situation and the time to act is now.