Agbogbloshie is a former wetland and suburb of Accra, Ghana known as a destination for legal and illegal exportation and environmental dumping of electronic waste (e-waste) from industrialized nations. Often referred to as a “digital dumping ground”, millions of tons of e-waste are processed each year in Agbogbloshie. As of March 2014, it was the world’s largest e-waste dump.
The town covers approximately four acres and is situated on the banks of the Korle Lagoon, northwest of Accra’s Central Business District. Roughly 40,000 Ghanaians inhabit the area, most of whom are migrants from rural areas. Due to its harsh living conditions and rampant crime, the area is nicknamed “Sodom and Gomorrah”.The Basel Convention prevents the transfrontier shipment of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. Only three countries, the United States, Afghanistan and Haiti, have never ratified the convention. Each month, cargo containers arrive in Agbogbloshie, often illegally, from countries all over the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. Unprotected workers, many of them young children, spend the day searching for metals to sell, usually by burning the electronics and dismantling them with their bare hands. In the process, they may earn upwards of eight to ten Ghana cedis per day (4 to 6 USD).
The waste processing emits toxic chemicals into the air, land and water. Exposure is especially hazardous to children, as these toxins are known to inhibit the development of the reproductive system, the nervous system, and especially the brain. Concerns about human health and the environment of Agbogbloshie continue to be raised as the area remains heavily polluted. In the 2000s, the Ghanaian government, with new funding and loans, implemented the Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project (KLERP), an environmental remediation and restoration project that will address the pollution problem by dredging the lagoon and Odaw canal to improve drainage and flooding into the ocean.Background
Before the arrival of electronic waste, the slum area of Agbogbloshie was once a wetland, referred to as Old Fadama or Ayaalolo. During the 1980s, it was a place of shelter for refugees from the Kokomba and the Nanumba war. It was not until the late 1990s that the landscape began to shift. Functional second-hand computers began arriving from the West to help ‘bridge the digital divide’. Ghanaians welcomed these donations, because these computers cost 1/10th of a new one.As the turnover rate of electronics increased, the once benevolent act of donating used computers became corrupted. Unsalvagable electronics started to be exported to Ghana in mass quantities. For Western countries, such as the United States, which have strict laws controlling the disposal of e-waste, it is cheaper to ship outdated and damaged computers to developing countries under the “donation” label than to properly recycle the electronics.
The local economy of Agbogbloshie is based on the electronic waste imports and the processing of these goods. Hundreds of millions of tons of electronic waste are imported to the area each year. The United States is the leading exporter of e-waste to Ghana, although imports arrive from other countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Korea, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Multinational brands such as Philips, Canon, Dell, Microsoft, Nokia, Siemens and Sony are commonly found throughout the waste.Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are even found adding to the waste when excess electronics are donated in with the intention of helping scholarly institutions. Exporters have found numerous loopholes to avoid legislation which prevent e-waste shipping, such as labeling broken electronics as ‘end-of-life’ or ‘second-hand-goods’, falsely identifying them as in working order. Between 50% and 75% of the electronics imported are unable to be salvaged and remain on the land.
Unprotected workers, mostly boys between 11–18 years old, process the imports in search for metals, such as copper, aluminum and iron, to collect and sell. To gain access to the metals, the workers burn old foam on top of the electronics in order to melt the plastic, or they dismantle the waste with their bare hands and stones. Magnets from other rubbished electronics are then used to gather the smallest of metal scraps left behind in the process. The remaining materials are further burned or dumped nearby.
The workers, children and adults alike, sell the metal scraps to earn a living. A half a sack of copper or aluminium will sell for about 700 Ghana Cedis, amounting to about eight to ten Ghana cedis per day (4 to 6 USD).
The population of Agbogbloshie consists of economic migrants from northern and rural parts of Ghana. Living standards in the north and rural areas are growing worse, causing people to move to urban settings, such as Agbogbloshie. Conditions may not be significantly better, but making a living is easier. Inhabitants of Agbogbloshie live, eat, work and relieve themselves on the land and amongst the waste. Children who are able to attend school often spend every evening and weekend processing waste searching for metals.
Dwellings are wooden shacks that lack water and sanitation. The area is also home to armed robbers, prostitutes, drug dealers and others involved in underground markets. Crime and disease run rampant throughout Agbogbloshie, creating an almost uninhabitable environment for humans. Outsiders have nicknamed the area “Sodom and Gomorrah,” after two condemned Biblical cities, due to the harsh living conditions in Agbogbloshie.
The processing and dumping of electronic waste in Agbogbloshie is polluting the area and creating serious environmental concern. E-waste contains toxic chemicals that are emitted into the ground, water and atmosphere when the electronics are broken down, burned and processed. Poisons such as lead, mercury, arsenic, dioxins, furans, and brominated flame retardants seep into the surrounding soil and water, thereby seriously polluting the landscape. Greenpeace labs tests have shown the water and soil from areas in Agbogbloshie revealed the area contained concentrations of toxins at levels a hundred times more than the allowable amount.
The Korle Lagoon, on which Agbogbloshie is situated, has extremely low levels of dissolved oxygen, as a result of the large and uncontrolled quantities of domestic and industrial waste being emitted into the water. Studies indicate that the entrance to the lagoon is severely polluted and not suitable for primary or secondary contact, due to the large amounts of bacteria present.
Human health risks
Processing electronic waste presents a serious health threat to workers at Agbogbloshie. The fumes released from the burning of the plastics and metals used in electronics are composed of highly toxic chemicals and carcinogens. Workers often inhale lead, cadmium, dioxins, furans, phthalates and brominated flame retardants.
Exposure to these fumes is especially hazardous to children, as these toxins are known to inhibit the development of the reproductive system, the nervous system, and the brain in particular. In similar e-waste processing areas, with conditions and demographics like those of Agbogbloshie, 80% of the children have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. Inhabitants often suffer from chronic nausea, headaches, chest and respiratory problems.
High levels of toxins have also been discovered in soil and food samples, as these chemicals stay in the food chain.
E-waste presents a potential security threat to individuals and exporting countries. Hard drives that are not properly erased before the computer is disposed of can be reopened, exposing sensitive information. Credit card numbers, private financial data, account information and records of online transactions can be accessed by most willing individuals. Organized criminals in Ghana commonly search the drives for information to use in local scams.
Government contracts have been discovered on hard drives found in Agbogbloshie. Multi-million dollar agreements from United States security institutions such as the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Transportation Security Administration and Homeland Security have all resurfaced in Agbogbloshie.