Western e-waste dumped in Africa

The World

When you get a new computer or cell phone or television, it's usually "out with the old." But the "old" has to go somewhere. Frequently that "somewhere" is China or India, but increasingly those used electronics are winding up in Africa, and Africans are paying a price – with their health. "The World'" Laura Lynch filed this report from the West African nation of Ghana.

Shards of smashed glass line the path to Agbaloshe. Officially, it's a market for scrap metal that sits within sight of downtown Accra, but calling it a "market" is a misnomer. Two boys use hammers to smash into the guts of computer screens. They're trying to get at copper wire and any other metal they can sell. There are hundreds of other boys doing the same thing all over the site. It's bad enough that they're exposing their bare hands to the hazardous chemicals hidden inside the computers. It gets worse when they take the remains out to the field and set them on fire to melt away any remaining plastic. The fire, fueled by chunks of styrofoam and car tires, spits thick columns of acrid black smoke into the air. 14-year-old Bashir Abu Kori waits for the flames to die down. His small body is covered in ash and mud, and there's a skin rash behind his left ear. That's not the only sign this place is making him sick. Something is bothering his throat.

Kori coughs and says that his stomach hurts. He says he's been working at the site for three years.

A few months ago, Greenpeace took samples from the soil and a nearby lagoon. The scientist who tested them said they contained lead 100 times above normal levels, along with other chemicals such as thalades, suspected of harming reproductive organs, and dioxins, which are linked to cancer. What goes on here is no secret. The children have worked here every day for years.

Joseph Edmund, of Ghana's Environmental Protection Agency, knows all about it: "We also recognize the accumulation of old computers or used computers or discarded computers in Ghana as a problem, because we know that it has all its environmental and health implications when not managed properly."

George Ahadsi, of The Green Earth Organization says, "Ghana is a dumping ground."

Ahadsi picks up a magazine his conservation group published years ago to show how long he’s been campaigning for a clean up: "'Remove toxic waste now.' We did this publication in 1994."

Ahadsi knows where it's coming from. Computers, televisions, and other unwanted electronics are shipped to a nearby port on container vessels. By law, they're supposed to be in working order so they can be re-sold. But many don't work, so they're dumped at the scrap yard where Bashiro and legions of other boys work -- and live. Bashiro takes me to his home on the other side of the lagoon -- past the young man with the boombox, past the children kicking a soccer ball on a muddy plot of ground. Everyone in our crowd calls this slum "Sodom and Gomorrah." It's lawless, filthy, and unsafe for the 30,000 people who live here.

Bashiro lives alone in a tiny shack perched on stilts above the flood plain. The floor is covered with newspaper; the ceiling with cardboard. A jar of Vaseline sits in front of a broken mirror. A thin piece of foam serves as his mattress. Bashiro talks about missing his mother and father; how he would like to be able to build a home near them or even a room of his own in their house -- but he doesn’t have the money to do it. Still, his parents sent him here from the northern part of Ghana because he can make up to five or ten dollars a day. That's a lot when most Ghanaians live on two dollars a day. Despite the social and environmental costs, there doesn't seem to be any rush to shut the market down.  

The EPA's Joseph Edmund talks about vague plans to do something, but something that will allow the relatively lucrative scrap business to carry on: "We may have to, if need be, get an official site for the disposal of these things.  And then, you know, train people also, if people want to do some recycling and so on, so forth.  We need to give them a proper scientific way of doing things – train them to be able to do these things.  But these things become a business."

Environmental activist George Ahadsi believes the government doesn't have the stomach to take on the strong men who profit from the first world's electronic garbage: "Those who are supposed to enforce what we call public health sanitation, who are not doing their work.  And people who are engaged in this e-waste are people who are very hardened people. And it needs strong laws, enforcement to be able to bring that down."

But there's another way to either limit the harm being done here or halt it all together. The mounds of old computers here carry labels. One says it's from the Circuit City chain in the United States. Another is from a government agency in Germany. Still others come from all over Europe.

Joseph Edmund, of the EPA, has a message for all of those nations: "They would have to stop the export of waste into our country. We don't need it. Just as they don't need them, we also don't need them. If they are going to give us equipment that will benefit us, fine.  Yeah, it's welcome. But if it's equipment that is going to create problems for us, then we don't need them. So they should also, you know, step up to their responsibilities while we also step up to ours."

Britain's Environment Agency announced an investigation last fall into whether the government itself is illegally dumping computers in Ghana.  That came just weeks after the government and accounting office in Washington accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of being far too lax when it comes to exporting electronic waste. But as the accusations fly, the garbage piles up. Last year, Americans generated 67 million pounds of electronic waste – up more than 30 percent from 2007. And it may get worse later this year, when the US switches over to digital television, and people dump their old TVs. A lot of them may end up here, poisoning the land and potentially the children, who think they're finding a fortune in the Western World's garbage.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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