Agbogbloshie in Ghana is a vast urban area that houses a massive e-waste recycling dump for many years now. Situated on the banks of the Korle Lagoon alongside the Old Fadama slum in Accra, it is home to around 80 000 people.

The area is noted for heavy, acidic gusts of smoke billow across the wasteland dotted with burning mounds of trash.

Up to 10,000 workers wade through tons of discarded goods as part of an enormous, informal recycling process, in what has become one of the world’s largest destinations for used electronic goods.

The Agbogbloshie dump is a result of the world’s increasing demand for electronic equipment as consumers continually upgrade their devices and throw out the older ones. A significant proportion of this electronic waste is sent, often illegally, from the West to developing countries across Africa and Asia.

Around 50 million tons of electronic waste, or e-waste, is being thrown away each year, according to a report published by the United Nations in 2019. That figure is projected to double by 2050. At the same time, only 20 percent of e-waste is thought to be recycled appropriately. The rest “ends up in landfill, or is disposed of by informal workers in poor conditions,” the UN found.

The e-waste problem could expand into a global health crisis, largely affecting urban areas, if not addressed. “E-waste is a growing global challenge that poses a serious threat to the environment and human health worldwide,” said Stephan Sicars, an environmental director at the UN Industrial Development Organization.

In Ghana, the waste arrives via the Port of Tema, 20 miles to the east of the Agbogbloshie dump. Hundreds of thousands of tons of used electronics—mainly from Western Europe and the United States—are delivered in huge containers. They are often labeled as secondhand consumer products, health experts said, so they are not strictly considered waste. But their impact is noxious all the same.

As part of his promise to clear the hazardous E-waste market in the capital of the country, the Greater Accra Regional Minister, Mr Henry Quartey today led a team of taskforce to decongest the market.

A heap of metal and old electronics at the e-waste dumping site

The exercise dubbed ‘Make Accra Clean’ was carried out by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), and other security officers from the military and the Police service.

According to him, Ghana cannot continue to be associated with E-waste and it is imperative that, the place is decongested.

The Minister said “We have sanitation to tackle, we have indiscipline issue to tackle, health issues and others. With indiscipline you find sanitation and security intertwined. Today we are here as part of the decongestion exercise combined with sanitation or cleaning the place so it is decongestion and clean up. Most of the companies are here but you will notice that on the issue of e waste this area has been declared as the worst, that is number one in Africa and among the top 10 in the world”.

The Greater Accra Regional Minister

“All we are saying is that, we need to place Ghana on the international market, looking good when it comes to e-waste and so this place is being decongested today and the good news is that, alternative arrangements are already in place for them. There is a recycle plant at the back of Agbobloshie and is completed so we are saying that, if you are dealing with spare parts there is a recycling plant and the second phase of the recycling plant is also coming up”, he added.

The unwanted record

Ghana imports about 150,000 tons of secondhand electronics a year, according to a 2011 study coordinated under the Basel Convention, an international treaty that since 1989 has forbidden developed nations from carrying out unauthorized dumping of e-waste in less developed countries. But the real figure is likely to be far higher, given the lucrative illicit trade of digital dumping, which is far cheaper than properly recycling devices that often contain toxic chemicals requiring careful treatment.

“Bearing in mind the serious contamination associated with the area, there is no doubt it is an emergency situation that requires a graded-approach kind of intervention,” said Eric Akortia, a researcher at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission. “It is very important the issue of waste export to developing countries such as Africa and other countries in transition should be looked at critically.”

Health hazards

Burns, back problems, and infected wounds are common ailments among these workers, as well as respiratory problems, chronic nausea, and debilitating headaches—brought on by the hazardous working environment and toxic air pollution.

“There are skin diseases and ailments [at Agbogbloshie], but the worst problem here is respiratory illnesses, because the amount of pollution here is so high,” said Julius Fobil, a professor at the University of Ghana’s School of Public Health, who carried out a study of the health of e-waste recyclers between 2016 and 2018.

“In terms of particulate matter, the quality of air is terrible,” Fobil added. “The workers can’t do anything about it because they have to earn a living, so it’s a trade-off. They earn money but their health suffers.”

These health risks are entering the food chain. The Agbogbloshie area is home to one of the largest food markets in Accra, and haggard livestock roam freely and graze on the dumpsite. A recent report by environmental groups Ipen and the Basel Action Network found Agbogbloshie contained some of the most hazardous chemicals on earth.

Our source of livelihood has been cut off

Speaking to journalists, the Chairman of the Old Fadama Scrap Dealers Association, Alfa Alhassan, said the demolition exercise would cut off their source of livelihood

Although he acknowledged that the Association was given prior notice some two weeks ago, he said efforts to meet with the Greater Accra Regional Minister, Henry Quartey, to get a briefing on the modalities, proved futile as they met his absence when they visited his office.

“They gave an announcement about two weeks ago. We decided to meet the Regional Minister about the eviction, but we met his absence. So we were waiting to have the meeting only to have our structures demolished today. Some of our members traveled outside the region to celebrate Eid and have not returned. Some of their belongings were cleared by the task force. This action will adversely affect us,” he lamented.

By Awudu Salami Sulemana Yoda