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Burning problem

June 29, 2011

Ghana often ends up the final resting place for used electronic devices. While some of the materials can be recycled, much is also sent there illegally, damaging the environment and the people who exploit it.

A boy sets fire to a bundle of cables
Burning plastic to get to copper wires brings boys a little cashImage: DW

The column of dark smoke that rises from the Ghanaian capital, Accra, can be seen from kilometers away and the closer it gets, the more it stinks.

Part of the stench comes from burning the plastic that encases copper wiring. Razat, 10, is one of the boys burning the plastic in Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra.

"We buy the cable and then burn away the plastic," he said. "That's the way we can make some money."

On a good day, Razat makes up to 10 Cedi - about five euros ($6) from the copper. It's more than the average income in Ghana, and helps Razat support his family. But it's ruining his health. The soil in Agbogbloshie is contaminated with heavy metals and the smoke from burning plastic is poisonous.

A global problem

Black smoke rising from a trash heap
Burning trash damages the health of the people exposed to itImage: DW

"When the smoke gets into your nose you get sick, your eyes and nose hurt," said 16-year-old Kwesi, who was tending a fire near Razat. "But if we don't do it, we can't buy anything to eat."

Burning cables is just a small part of the worldwide problem posed by discarded electronic devices.

Every year some 40 million tons of electronic waste is produced, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

Developing nations are often happy to accept the electronic scrap, which includes mobile phones, televisions and refrigerators.

People will either repair the products or resell the materials they can reclaim. Anything leftover is usually disposed of in ways that would be illegal in industrialized nations.

Industrial countries are only permitted to export hazardous waste to other industrial countries, according to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which has been ratified by all industrialized countries besides the United States.

A box of assorted electronic waste
Today's high tech is tomorrow's trashImage: CC / splorp

The world's dump

But an exception is made to the convention for electronic goods that are still considered usable. And that, according to environmental groups, is turning Ghana and other countries that accept the waste into the world's 'e-dump.'

Germany's Institute for Applied Ecology in Freiburg estimates that 15 percent of the used electronic devices that end up in Ghana are in fact junk - amounting to 22 000 tons of e-waste per year.

Among those devices are the refrigerators and computer monitors that line the road outside the harbor city of Tema, the entry point for much of the garbage from abroad.

Yet local traders see things differently. Isaac Osei, who owns an electronic goods shop in Tema, says the products he sells are anything but scrap.

"I've checked it all - everything works," he said. "These things are better than imports from China. Even the rich and middle class want to buy them."

Further down the road, Isaac Darko Kwapo, another shop owner, says there is some luck involved in getting products that still work.

"Sometimes only half of a shipment still works," he said. "Some middlemen are cheats and frauds and others aren't. But it's still worth it for us."

A man holding a circut board
Will China's machines improve life in Ghana?Image: DW

Pervasive industry

As many as 30,000 jobs in Ghana rely on the trade in, and repair of, used electronics. Though it's fueling a lot of business, the Ghanaian government has identified e-waste as a problem and has moved to impose stricter regulations on imported goods.

Yet the government lacks the money to inspect all shipments from abroad.

"There are a few companies in the country that have just started and we are hoping for more investment," said Joseph Edmund of the state-owned environment protection agency.

"For now that government has to do the work, but over time I hope private institutions will come in to assist the government."

Back in Agbogbloshie another cottage industry is beginning to emerge: Exporting leftover e-waste back to where it was originally produced.

Boys at the scrap heap say they can sell circuit boards to people who export them to China for electronic recycling.

This may be better for the environment - and more lucrative - than burning off plastic to get at copper, but it's hardly a leap forward for Ghana's people and environment.

Author: Samuel Burri /sms

Editor: Nathan Witkop