Life Beyond the Trash: The Story of E-waste in Agbogbloshie

Sub-Saharan Africa Desk

Written by: Adoma Addo, Berkeley College ’23

Accra is a city of contradiction, from the kente-patterned skyscrapers in Airport City to the aging colonial-style compounds in Jamestown. While anyone who claims to know the city can tell you where to find the best food in town with the bat of an eye, people are considerably less likely to know about Agbogbloshie (æg-bog-blO-shee), a major hub for e-waste dumping on the outskirts of central Accra.[1] Often considered one of the world’s largest digital scrap yards, Agbogbloshie is depicted as an urban wasteland. The Austrian documentary “Welcome to Sodom”[2] portrays the landfill with images of thick black smoke pierced by flame over miles of dilapidated desktops. Bare wires and broken glass leave the viewer with a sense of desperation. Scattered throughout the fields of debris, there are people in soot-stained clothes sorting through the wreckage. Among the people scavenging through the debris, there are mothers with their young children.[3] The visuals almost seem to have been taken from a dystopian Sci-Fi blockbuster. 

Agbogbloshie lies just beyond the central city, bordered by the Old Fadama informal settlement, which is believed to be home to approximately 80,000 people.[4] Old Fadama is a settlement of migrants; many residents migrated from the impoverished rural areas of Ghana’s northern regions in search of economic opportunity in the capital.[5] Some residents are refugees from other West African countries such as Togo, Burkina Faso and Nigeria[6].  Old Fadama and Agbogbloshie are frequently considered to be one large, impoverished, informal settlement, representing one of the largest in the Greater Accra region.[7] As reported by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Old Fadama is of particular importance for several development initiatives due to the long history of forced and unlawful evictions, as well as the legacies of ethnic tensions due to ancestral land rights.[8] According to Amnesty International, the situation is made worse by the fact that over 50% of residents living in Old Fadama work in the informal sector, with low levels of formal education and inconsistent daily incomes.[9] Many of the people working in the urban informal sector are involved in activities such as selling goods in markets and on the street, repairing electronic equipment, as well as constructing buildings.[10]

In the media, Agbogbloshie is often portrayed as a place of lawlessness, where developed and developing countries alike have delivered second-hand electronics for profit, totaling at around 215,000 tons of goods imported every year.[11]While there is debate around the exact values of these numbers, experts estimate that around half of the imported electronics can be put back into the domestic market and sold as functional goods. The other half is either recycled or dumped in a landfill alongside the approximately 129,000 tons of domestically-produced e-waste.[12]

The recycling that occurs in Agbogbloshie is primarily informal, consisting of individuals manually removing parts and burning plastics to expose profitable metals, such as copper, from wires.[13] This method of informal recycling and metal recovery presents numerous human health and ecological concerns for the surrounding informal settlement and the Korle Lagoon. Numerous studies of the soil and water in the surrounding area indicate the presence of toxic contaminants such as arsenic, lead, and mercury. Furthermore, according to a study supported by the University of Michigan, high levels of cadmium, lead, and arsenic was found in the urine and blood of workers involved in the burning of e-waste.[14] Residents recognize the dangers of the informal recycling at Agbogbloshie but possess few relocation options or alternate economic opportunity. The crux of the issue at Agbogbloshie is the tradeoff between economic gain and human security: how do we account for an individual’s economic needs while also ensuring ecological resilience and population health in the pursuit of sustainable development?

Many of the projects implemented at the waste site have sought to (1) invest in the formalization of recycling practices and (2) address the infrastructural incapacities of the informal metal recycling. Since 2015, the Agbogbloshie Scrap Dealer’s Cooperative has been running a recycling facility in the community under the guidance of institutions such as the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency, Ghana Health Services, United National Industrial Development Organization, and the Blacksmith Institute.[15]

 While the project represents a good start for the transition away from unsustainable recycling practices in the scrapyard, the recycling facility does not address the actual production of e-waste both domestically and abroad and will need to increase its recycling capacity to ebb the growing quantities of e-waste produced each year. The blight of e-waste is not a problem that is unique to Ghana or other developing countries, although developing countries lacking the infrastructure necessary to regulate formal recycling continue to face the brunt of its consequences. With over 50 million tonnes of e-waste produced each year, it is high time to consider where old phones, laptops, and TVs actually end up after being donated.[16] While the majority will not burn in an urban wasteland 8,000 km away, it is important to recognize that e-waste management is an inherently global issue and one that is not being equitably addressed.


Bibliography

[1] Petricca, Carla. 2017. 

[2] Weigensamer and Krönes 

[3] See reference 3

[4] “Reaching the Underserved: UNFPA Youth Fellows Organizes Outreach at Old Fadama” 2018

[5] Blank, Lew

[6] See reference 4

[7] See reference 1

[8] “Slum Politics in Accra : Understanding Urban Ghana.” 2016

[9] Akoto Amoafo, Robert. 2018

[10] Osei-Boateng, Clara, and Edward Ampratwum, Page 13-14

[11] See reference 5.

[12] “Projects Reports- Worst Polluted-Pure Earth/ Blacksmith Institute.” 2013

[13] “Ghana (Agbogbloshie) – E-Waste Recycling.” 2015. 

[14] Srigboh et al. 2016

[15]“Project Completion Report: Making Electronic Waste Recycling in Ghana Safer Through Alternative Technology, Accra Ghana.” 2015

[16] “UN Report: Time to Seize Opportunity, Tackle Challenge of e-Waste.” 2019