Environment Magazine

How America Helped Build Africa’s E-Wasteland

Posted on the 05 February 2014 by Earth First! Newswire @efjournal
Most recyclers die by the age of 20 of cancer

Most recyclers die by the age of 20 of cancer

by Pierce Nahigyan / Nation of Change

If you had a detailed enough map, you could find Agbogbloshie on the banks of the Korle Lagoon, just outside of Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Its four acres contain an estimated population of 40,000 men, women and children living in shacks built from scrap metal. It is the world’s largest dumpsite for electronic waste.

Mosquitos from the lagoon spread malaria. Residents report headaches, chronic nausea, insomnia, respiratory problems, anorexia and burns. Smoke rises in black pillars across the landscape as plastic appliances are incinerated for the metals inside. Children hack at motherboards and smart phones with rocks and chisels while women wander through the burning scrap heaps selling fruit and bags of water, their infants tied to them and breathing the toxic air.

Agbogbloshie is strewn with the discarded pieces of VHS players, televisions, computers, laptops, refrigerators, microwaves and stereos, and the U.N. has predicted that this electronic waste will increase by 33 percent in the next four years. Already the soil is contaminated with cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lead. The ground is so saturated with lead that it measures 18,125 parts per million, forty-five times the United States’ safety standard. 

How America Helped to Build the World’s E-Wasteland

The United States remains the world’s leading producer of electronic waste. Last month the Guardian reported that an individual American is responsible for an average of sixty-five pounds of e-waste (followed closely by the United Kingdom, at forty-eight pounds). Altogether, in 2010 the U.S. discarded over 250 million assorted electronics, including computers, monitors and cellphones.

The sale of Used Electronic Products (UEPs) is big business in America, constituting a $20.6 billion industry. In 2011, $1.45 billion of that was generated by the export of UEPs. The highest demand and the most profitable sales comes from businesses and individuals in the secondary market who pay for functioning products. There is another entire industry devoted to disassembling and recycling non-functioning UEPs. However, much of this scrap is handled by what the United States International Trade Commission terms the “informal recycling sector.”

This sector is made up of parties that do not have the ability to properly process electronics and their associated hazardous materials, usually developing countries. This includes towns in India, China and places in Africa like Agbogbloshie. An estimated 50-80 percent of American e-waste is transported to these countries in violation of international law. However, an international law such as the Basel Convention does not apply to the United States.

The Basel Convention, the Basel Ban, and American Immunity

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal is a United Nations-backed accord that was passed in 1989. It was created to regulate the flow of hazardous waste from industrialized nations to developing ones. Under the Basel Convention, a country may ship hazardous waste to another country only after receiving its written consent. The Convention was strengthened in 1995 with an amendment that bans shipments of hazardous waste from rich to poor countries. (Technically, it bans waste trade between members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to non-OECD countries, but this can easily be generalized in economic terms.)

You can read the complete list of countries that have ratified this treaty on the United Nations Treaty Collection website. Up until March 2013, the Basel Convention had been ratified by over 170 nations, with the exception of three: Haiti, Afghanistan and the United States.

All three had signed the treaty by 1990, but without ratification the Basel Convention does not apply to them. Afghanistan formally ratified on March 25 of last year, leaving only Haiti and the United States of America free of its restrictions.

By refusing to implement Basel Ban measures, America can trade its e-waste to whomever it desires. Though the U.S. is still an OECD member, it is not bound to the OECD’s decision that requires Prior Informed Consent for hazardous waste trade and “prohibits exports if there is reason to believe that the wastes will not be handled in an environmentally sound manner.” In the words of the Basel Action Network, the United States has chosen to elevate the concerns of its industrial lobby over its own public and the international community, and its blatant disregard for the Basel Ban is considered an act of “bad faith.”

This has given America the unique freedom to export asbestos, lead acid batteries and cadmium contaminated sludge “to developing countries ill equipped to deal with such wastes.”

Agbogbloshie: Ghana’s “Sodom and Gomorrah”

Ghana imports 215,000 tons of used electronics every year. But because the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency does not adequately distinguish between functioning and non-functioning UEPs, these imports can be worthless to the developing country in terms of second-hand use. GhanaWeb reports that up to 75 percent of these electronics are dumped in landfills, where they’re then broken down by “informal recyclers” – children who can sell the reclaimed copper for twenty-two cents per kilogram, or plastic at a penny per kilo.

Such is the case in Agbogbloshie, a land so poisoned that Aljazeera reports most of its recyclers “die from cancer while in their twenties.” Some of its residents drink elixirs they believe will protect them, syrups and medicines mixed in used Coke bottles.

In 2002, Ghana’s government tried to shut down Agbogbloshie’s slums, which have become so rife with crime, thievery, drugs and prostitution that Ghanians call it “Sodom and Gomorrah,” after the Biblical city destroyed by God for its wickedness. The Korle Lagoon is near the Korle Bu Teaching hospital, and the Accra government hoped to turn the slum into a green and recreational facility, as it had been in the past. That May police stormed the encampments, throwing out squatters and engaging in long shootouts with the residents. According to the government, the “criminal elements” were arrested and imprisoned, yet twelve years later the “Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project” is no closer to completion.

The land remains an apocalyptic ruin, its hills of electronics amassed from countries across the globe, their insides glittering with gold, copper, zinc, lanthanum, silver and platinum – as well as lead, cadmium and mercury. Children play football amongst the scrap while the youngest among them dangle magnets on the ends of string, sifting for metal. Plastic cables and Styrofoam burn the appliances that enclose them.

And twenty miles away, shipping containers from Europe, China, India and the United States are arriving in Tema Harbor with more.

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