As the graveyard for unwanted electronics, Accra’s Agbobloshie market is the poster child of unbridled consumerism and environmental degradation.
Excess use and demand for gadgets, computers and phones vis-a-vis stringent environmental rules and dwindling disposal options in developed countries has led to dumping of electronic waste in developing countries, usually under the guise of charity or sustainable environmental stewardship.
Places like Agbobloshie, a slum in Accra, have borne the brunt. With poverty and high unemployment rates, the recycling of waste seems to offer a way out. Lax rules and inadequate infrastructure have however, turned this opportunity into a disaster. Public and environmental health has been jeopardized as people work under poor conditions and hazardous materials are disposed off with abandon. The corollary effect is a contaminated site of apocalyptic proportions that has garnered global attention.
Successive governments have tried to address the Agbogloshie issue. Businesses and non-governmental organizations have helped too. Common interventions have included clean-up campaigns, training and the building of recycling facilities.
Results have been mixed as unregulated recycling activities continue and the environmental degradation remains. To those charged with modernizing Accra and showcasing its environmental credentials, Agbobloshie’s continued existence is untenable, hence a recent exercise to decongest the area by demolishing unauthorized structures on the site.
According to the authorities, decongestion has become necessary because of sanitation and health issues. The area is also said to have become a den for criminals and brought negative attention to Accra as a modern city.
Decongesting and demolishing physical structures may align with the modernization agenda of city authorities, including addressing aesthetic concerns. But it will not be enough to make Agbobloshie the liveable space it needs to be.
First of all, years of unregulated environmental activity have made the place a brownfield with contaminated soil and high concentrations of hazardous material.
Second, as unofficial landfill for decades, leachate and other contaminants have seeped into nearby water bodies and the local water table. Demolition will not address the pollution that exists on the surface or lurks beneath.
As a brownfield or contaminated site, Agbobloshie will continue to pose significant danger to public health and the environment without remediation. Many options exist to make the place livable. This ranges from capping to thermal treatment of contaminated soils in situ or offsite. The remediation approach or technology used will depend on the end use or the plans the authorities have for the area.
If the desire is for residential use, then more stringent remediation will be needed. Restoring the place to its original or pristine form may be a consideration. For business and commercial use however, such restoration may not be warranted. Even then, constant monitoring will be needed to ensure that problems do not occur down the road just as in Love Canal, New York, where a former landfill that was turned into a residential area ended up becoming the source of contamination and birth defects several years later.
Agbobloshie epitomizes what is wrong with our current linear approach to resource use, which is to make, use and dispose. As attempts are made to address the environmental and social issues of the area therefore, care must be taken to ensure that actions are holistic.
Decongestion will not be enough. Neither will demolition. The policy, regulatory, behavioral and political conditions that enable the dumping and unsustainable management of electronic waste must be tackled.
The environmental problems that exist on and beneath the surface must be addressed. Contaminated soils must be removed, treated or capped while leachete and other contaminants are taken care of. As well, those displaced by these exercises must be trained and supported to contribute to the circular green economy.
By Dr Ernest Opoku-Boateng