The European Union is rewriting the rules on dumping electronic waste with the aim of putting an end to illegal shipments to Africa. In Ghana in particular e-waste is a major source of pollution.
Poisonous fumes fill the air at Agbogbloshie
Ghana's capital Accra is a bustling, cosmopolitan city with a population of more than four million. There, as in other cities in the West African country, technical innovations are being snapped up by all who can afford them.
Statistically, every household in Ghana owns at least one television or radio set, giving people access to a wealth of information from inside and outside the country.
The use of electronic gadgets of all kinds has become commonplace around the world. But the speed with which new devices are produced, and existing ones become obsolete, has resulted in a global explosion of electronic waste and Ghana has become one of the main dumping grounds.
Making a living from e-waste
Only a decade ago, the term e-waste was unknown - but today it's part of everyday life for many Ghanaians. There is no efficient disposal system in place to deal with the mountains of unwanted gadgets such as cellphones, TVs, computers, radio sets and refrigerators.
There's always someone hoping to benefit from others' waste
Agbogbloshie Market is one of the biggest and busiest markets in Accra. It's not only the place where people go to find everything they need to cook a tasty meal, it also has the dubious reputation of being a place where all sorts of electronic gadgets are taken apart and burned. Large amounts of e-waste are also buried nearby, polluting the soil.
Korle Lagoon, close to Agbogbloshie Market, is not somewhere to go for a pleasant stroll. Photos give an impression of what the end of the world could look like, with plumes of smoke rising from a grey, devastated landscape. The site has become a source of concern to many local residents and to the people who work there and who are in daily contact with e-waste. Many say they have no alternative as they need the money to survive.
One man's mission
Ghanaian journalist Emmanuel Dogbevi has written frequently about the problem of e-waste in his country and has made it his personal mission to rid the country of the blight.
"When I noticed that e-waste was a clear and present danger to Ghana, I decided to report on this, to bring it to public attention," he told Deutsche Welle.
There are two sources of the waste. One is Ghanaians themselves. As Dogbevi puts it, "how many Ghanaians know what to do with a laptop that is dysfunctional? If something can't be fixed, what happens to it? It becomes e-waste."
And then there are the people that Dogbevi calls criminals, those who deliberately bring e-waste into the country from abroad.
Not a scene from a disaster movie but reality in Ghana
"It's more expensive to recycle e-waste properly in the developed world where they have the technology and the resources," he said.
"Because they want to make more money, they collaborate with local people who bring the unwanted items into Ghana, claiming they are selling old computers that can still be used."
There is some truth in this. According to a Ghanaian government study, in 2009 the country imported some 215,000 tons of electronics, of which 70 percent were labeled as usable. However, the study found that, of those 70 percent, at least 15 percent were trash.
Much of the trash is bought up cheaply by young Ghanaians at Agbogbloshie Market. They dismantle the parts, remove the copper wire and anything else they can sell, before burning the rest to get at other valuable components. In so doing, they ingest poisonous fumes and pollute the environment.
Ghanaian government 'not interested'
Dogbevi accuses the government of not doing enough to tackle the issue.
"Sometimes I think they are either not interested in dealing with the problem because it is difficult or they are just simply ignoring it," he said.
The European Union is now stepping up efforts to increase the amount of e-waste being recycled in member countries. This should be good news for Ghana and other African countries.
But Emmanuel Dogbevi says there is still plenty of scope for the Ghanaian government to act and prevent unscrupulous dealers from adding to the mountains of trash.
Author: Isaac Kaledzi, Accra / sh
Editor: Mark Caldwell / rm