The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that West Africa has become a major destination for electronic waste together with some Asian countries. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that close to 50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated each year with only 10% of it being recycled. 60-90% of the waste is being illegally traded and sent to Western Africa and Asia. Instead of recycling in the West, the waste is being shipped to Africa where it accumulates in toxic dumps.
UNEP says the term e-waste covers a host of electronic items like personal computers, televisions, mobile phones, printers, and electrical goods like refrigerators and air conditioning units. Rapid innovation in consumer electronics, continuous product development and the digital economy have contributed to the rise in e-waste. Trade in e-waste is regulated under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal of 1992 which was developed in the wake of toxic waste dumping scandals in the 1980s.
178 countries are party to the Convention. Though there are regulations governing disposal of waste, the expenses that result from legal disposal have been seen to dissuade corporations from recycling and lawfully disposing of waste. UNEP estimates that 200%-400% can be saved through illegal disposal as opposed to legitimate recycling. Key destinations for large-scale shipments for hazardous wastes in Africa have been identified as Ghana, Nigeria, and to some extent, Cote d’Ivoire and the Republic of the Congo. Ghana’s Agbogbloshie, a former wetland in Accra has achieved global notoriety for the toxic waste in the area.
In 2014, The Guardian ran an article that alleged it is the world’s largest e-waste dump. With photographs of the area taken by Kevin McElvaney as evidence of the devastation in the area, the Guardian went on to say, “Boys and young men smash devices to get tp the metals, especially copper. Injuries such as burns, untreated wounds, eye damage, lung and back problems, go hand in hand with chronic nausea, anorexia, debilitating headaches and respiratory problems. Most workers die from cancer in their 20s.”
It is not just a matter of making noise about the eyesore that the dumps are but the pollution is a threat to life.
Photographer Yepoka Yeebo says, “The electronic waste leaks lead, mercury, arsenic, zinc and flame-retardants. They’ve been found in toxic concentrations in the air, water, and even on the fruits and vegetables at the wholesale market.”
In true African fashion, however, Ghana is making lemonade from the situation as evidenced by reports that the government is building a recycling facility at Agbogbloshie.
Project Consultant, Francis Bullen Gavor said of the project, “With this new facility, harmful elements associated with waste products will be captured and processed safely, thereby preserving critical ecological components.”
Dr. Christian Nellemann, head of the Rapid Response Unit at Rhipto-Norwegian Center for Global Analyses says, “It is illegal to export e-waste, but extensive smuggling networks classify the waste as second-hand goods and dump it in places like Ghana, India, Pakistan and Brazil. Tricks include declaring waste batteries as plastic or mixed metal scrap, and cathode ray tubes and computer monitors as metal scrap. Both small and large-scale smuggling techniques can be seen all over the world, from organized truck transport across Europe and North America to the use of major smuggling hubs in South Asia, including widespread container transport by sea.”
With various legal loopholes to exploit, UNEP has warned that criminals may collect payments for safe disposal and then smuggle the waste to developing regions like Africa. Globally, the illegal trade in hazardous waste is estimated to generate revenue north of $12 billion a year for criminal enterprises with illegal disposal estimated to be four times cheaper than legal treatment in some countries.