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Electronic Waste in Ghana: A Blessing with Strings Attached!

            The spread of capitalism and the increasing need for technology manipulated in part by globalization through transnational trade have significantly influenced in the last few decades the widespread, indiscriminate, and illegal trading of electronic waste to mostly developing countries from developed countries (Frandsen, Rasmussen, and Swart 2011; Azuka 2009; Agyeman and Carmin 2008). Most developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) unlike their counterparts in the ‘West’ are trying to catch up with various mechanisms of globalization, which include, but is not limited to technological advancement and bridging the digital divide to promote economic growth, modernity, and development (Azuka 2009). As a result of this process, electronic materials that have long lived the period of their functionality have been shipped at an unprecedented scale to developing countries including China and India over the last few decades (Azuka 2009; EIA 2011; Li 2008). This is becoming a serious phenomenal in most countries in SSA, which include South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana as the vast growing illegal importers of e-waste on the continent (Azuka 2009; Akuru and Okoro 2010).

Source: Journeyman Pictures

Electronic waste is described as any electrical or electronic device that is considered discarded and cannot be used (Akuru and Okoro 2010). Electronic waste is shipped illegally into developing countries eager to reuse these devices. Some electronic waste may contain chemical substances such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or Brominated Flame Retardants (BFR) (Azuka 2009). The disposal and recycling of electronic waste in developed countries may pose significant risk to workers and communities (EIA 2011). This is even worst in developing countries where the necessary infrastructures and technological systems to adequately recycle and dispose e-waste are lacking and non-existent.
This paper explores the emerging e-waste hub in Ghana as well as social movements, such as Greenpeace, Captain Planet Foundation and local grassroots youth initiatives that seek to create public education and awareness of the environmental and health hazards associated with the indiscriminate disposal and inappropriate handling and management of e-waste.
Electronic waste (e-waste) contains hazardous materials and substances such as lead, mercury and cadmium, which are extremely detrimental to human health and the environment (Agyeman and Carmin 2008). The Ghanaian government through the Ministry of Spatial Planning, Housing and Environment lacks the appropriate legal framework to regulate 'discarded electronic gadgets' (e-waste) once they are no longer useful. E-waste that cannot be recycle end up in drainage systems, water sources and throughout land in various communities causing not only health and environmental concerns, but also extensive cost on local communities to clear up.
Globally, it is estimated that developed countries produce between 20 million to 50 million tonnes of electronic waste, most of which are illegally shipped to developing countries in dying need of these technologies without due regard to the adverse health and environmental impacts (Agyeman and Carmin 2008; EIA 2011). Most developing countries are the targeted destinations for the disposal of the electronic waste produced and used in developed countries (Agyeman and Carmin 2008; Frandsen, Rasmussen, and Swart 2011; Akuru and Okoro 2010).

Source: Greenpeace, Basel Action Network, 2010

In Ghana specifically, a study estimates that 600 forty feet super containers are shipped to Accra, Ghana on a monthly basis (Frandsen, Rasmussen, and Swart 2011). Among the countries that export used electronic devices to Ghana, the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain are on top of the list (Frandsen, Rasmussen, and Swart 2011). Findings reported in one study suggest that e-waste exported from the US, UK, Denmark and Sweden were previously owned by universities, private institutions, municipalities and companies (Frandsen, Rasmussen, and Swart 2011).

Source: Electronic Waste Guide

A local community in Accra called ‘Agbogbloshie’ is the largest e-waste dumpsite and transaction hub located in the country with population in the thousands. The workers in this informal sector compose of approximately 40 per cent children who are more vulnerable to environmental contaminants and exposure to toxic chemicals that are found within the hardware of electronic devises (Frandsen, Rasmussen, and Swart 2011; Agyeman and Carmin 2008). Exposures to these toxic chemicals can also cause long-term health effects that are usually irretrievable and can lead to miscarriages, infertility, and birth defeats, endocrine disease as well as growth of tumors that could result into cancer (Agyeman and Carmin 2008; PANOS 2010).

Video Source: 

Very few have been written in the literature about the environmental and health implications of e-waste and social movements within the context of SSA (Edge 2010). This could be partly due to the lack of public awareness and education of the environmental and health implications of the inappropriate and indiscriminate management and disposal of e-waste. However, the aspirations and zeal of people living in developing countries to have access to electronic devices continuously sustains and fuels this informal sector.  
Relatively, the introduction of the computer technology in most communities in countries in SSA is still a new concept and social reality and the e-waste situation in Ghana as is in India, China, South Africa and Nigeria (Azuka 2009). Not everyone in SSA countries to can afford to purchase a brand new personal computer or other electronic devices, such as a brand new mobile phone and other electronic gadgets. Most people usually purchase use computers, usually purchasing the central processing units (CPUs) separately from the monitors before assembling the parts at home. In Ghana for example, a used computer that has long lived its life span can be purchased ranging from $50.00 to $100.00 USD depending on the capacity of the hard drive, memory size and processor speed. The higher the parts of the computer central processing unit in terms of workload capacity and performance the higher the price of the entire central processing unit. The parts of e-waste in the containers that cannot be used or sold and recycled are indiscriminately disposed in the local environment or burned openly, which causes air pollutions and lung diseases.
Most governments of countries in SSA lack the ability to appropriately regulate the illegal importation of e-waste in the country. Specifically, Ghana does not have a legal framework to deal with the e-waste crisis in the country. There is lack of information in the literature with respect to programs and services put in place to effectively mitigate the environmental and health damages and implications caused by the indiscriminate, widespread and poor management of e-waste. In fact, a study suggests that the entire country has only one recycling facility with a limited workforce (Frandsen, Rasmussen, and Swart 2011). With a population of about 24 million people, Ghana is growing at an unprecedented rate and at the current pace and trend of e-waste importation in Ghana, if the government cannot institute a framework to address mitigate e-waste disposal and management, there will be an environmental and health disaster within regions and communities where these e-waste dumpsites are located (Prakash and Manhart 2010; Azuka 2009; Agyeman and Carmin 2008). The following video is a projection of the actual trajectory of the digital divide in our world today and portrays how discarded electronic devices from one part of the global are been shipped and causing several socioeconomic, environmental and health related outcomes mostly in developing countries.

It should be noted here that the affordability of a personal computer through those who work at e-waste dumpsites in Ghana is a social reality; that is, a dream come true no matter if that computer was made in the 1980s or not. Having a computer at home makes an individual “the guy” or “the lady” of the civilized world. However, the main question that needs to be asked is does the acquisition of a personal computer through this means justifies the environmental and health hazards that are associated with being exposed to toxic and carcinogenic chemicals? To us as social change agents and environmentalists no! But, for rural and urban poor individuals in a fast growing, poverty engulfed communities; the answer is a big Yes! Most Ghanaian prefers to purchase used computers from individuals who work at the e-waste dumpsites instead of purchasing a brand new computer because of the high prices. When I was in Ghana about six (6) years ago, I once purchased a used computer for personal use from a middleman who occasionally visits the sites. The prices are affordable and most people prefer spending less than more in this harsh economic time. 
The importation of e-waste in most developing countries is illegally done usually with someone who is an insider within the government agencies who authorize containers with e-waste into the country (Laha 2009). An interesting issue is that the importation of e-waste in Ghana is illegal, but yet e-waste is been shipped every month in super containers at the Tema Port Authority (TPA) in Tema, Ghana. The TPA is the government’s agency with the mandate and responsibilities of inspecting every container that is at the port. Nevertheless, e-waste continued to be released from the port unchecked, which is usually done through a systematic bribery of port authorities.
            The desires to acquire and possess electronic gadgets have been on the rise in most developing countries where the population is growing unprecedentedly and people are curious to have access to ‘end of life’ electronic devices illegally imported from developed countries no matter the associated perceived dangers with these usually chemical-intense electronic devices, which has both negative and positive consequences and this is influenced by the spread of technology and the desire to become ‘modernized’ through the use of electronic devices.
            In most instances, electronic waste is largely part of the informal sector generating immense economic gains for those that run the business, but poses environmental and health threats to local inhabitants where the storage sites are located, to the environment and those who work in  the storage facilities (Azuka 2009; Agyeman and Carmin 2008). With limited environmental and social impact assessments conducted by governments of developing countries on electronic waste, e-wastes are openly stored in the environment of urban communities where unaware consumers flock into these open sites to purchase discarded electronic materials for reuse (EIA 2011; Li 2008).
In Ghana for example, the importation of electronic waste from developed countries such as the United States of America, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands is a productive business that promotes the Ghanaian economy, but displaced urban populations, cause extreme environmental damage in terms of land and water pollution and negative health outcomes. It seems like people do not recognize the health and environmental security implications of e-waste in their backyard, drainage systems and water sources. Do they really care about their personal health and the health of the environment? The answers to these questions and doubts about people who live and work in e-waste dumpsites are rooted deeply within the socioeconomic and digital divides in Ghana. Ghana has one of Africa’s fastest growing population and economy. There is a crucial need for the government to formulate a framework that would regulate the informal e-waste distribution chain. The government as well as local organizations, youth led institutions, human rights activists and agents of change need to be proactive in addressing the e-waste scheme in Ghana.
In terms of social and environmental movements to address the e-waste problem in Ghana, very little is found on the issue. There seems to be lack of public awareness and education of the dangers that are associated with the e-waste dilemma. Greenpeace and Captain Planet and the Planeteers are organizations that are working with local groups in Ghana to create public awareness, education and clean-up campaigns. Recently, environmental activists Barbara Y.E. Pyle of Captain Planet visited Ghana in February and held several local actions to create public awareness for self-action. Unlike South Africa, where there has been extensive progress in mitigating the e-waste scheme, Ghana still has lots to do because currently, the government does not have a single legal framework to address this problem.
Personally, I am more interested in this topic for my master thesis towards my degree in environmental science and policy. It would be interesting to conduct a study to explore the extend to which e-waste manifests itself as a productive business within the informal sector and at the same time creating serious and severe health and environmental consequences that outweighs the potential benefits, which are short-term.

Works Cited


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