E-Waste

   

Our life becomes more electrified. It seems that every day a new product conquers the market to make our boring days more enjoyable, efficient and entertaining.
Since we need to stay in touch with our friends at every moment of the day we have a smartphone. Lets make it two because of the important work-life balance.
When we are home we play around with our Laptops, PCs, pads and most recently added: the smartwatch (Seriously?)
Since the drums of our washing machines are no longer made from metal but from plastic, since our fridges better be energy class level A+++ and not only A, since we upgrade our computer at least every 2 years due to lack of technical understanding or because we develop a PCB-envy when our friends have this shiny new upgraded computer which allows them to run this one game or program so smooth that we start drooling, we will buy and throw away.

If we are a ‘conscious consumer’ we resell our stuff locally and feel good about ourselves. In the end it will be waste. No matter how conscious we are, when it comes to modern technology, there is an end-consumer.

When this chain has reached its end, some longer and others shorter, the waste is being thrown away. If you are lucky, your local recycling facility will take care of it and will extract the valuable resources and treat the rest as what it is: toxic waste.

Most likely someone will look at it and decide if it can still be used or repaired before it is destroyed. If that is the case, the ‘do-gooder’ awakes.

Haven’t you heard about the ‘digital divide’/’digital gap’?

Don’t you know that kids of Ethiopian pastoralists can learn way better if given a free ipad?

We need to give access to computers to everyone everywhere!

One laptop per child and everything will be fine!

Think about the sales! I mean kids!

When the idea of the digital divide came up in the 1990s as a consequence of the lack of African countries to access the global trade in information technology and the acknowledgement that without IT the African continent will be even further behind the global ‘development’ massive amounts of funds and policy makers attention went to the topic.

Today we find widely discussed programs as the OLPC (one laptop per child) initiative that started in India but is spread all over the less saturated do-gooder markets of our world.

Don’t get me wrong. Decent living conditions are an intrinsic part of my understanding of being human.

But is it necessary that everybody has a computer, TV and smartphone with internet access and high resolution display?

The fact that there is not only a global digital divide but also an national and regional, or lets say a huge divide between the income classes of a society makes it harder to tackle the problem.

Being around the more ‘global’ spots in Ghana I see people using two smartphones and an iPad nearly on a daily basis. Your phone got stolen last week? Look for it at Accra circle because it is most definitely in the hands of a guy selling it to finance his and his brother/cousin/friend’s life abroad.

The major problem is the starting position. On the one hand there is a huge lack of money to acquire products that are durable and possible to repair, on the other hand there is a huge desire to upgrade ones life. It takes modern IT technology to be part of a generation where friends are only two clicks away and drinks are always ice-cold.

If I can afford it to install an A/C in my 2 square meter shoe shop with no one inside I will do it. Why? Because I can.

The excessive use of anything that somehow seems to be modern or technological leads to the total overwhelming of a already rundown waste and sewage system.

The demand for fridges is high and the money is small. So the result is a vibrant trade in electronic goods.

Even though there is ‘a strong policy network to ensure the monitoring of the trade and reduce negative effects on the population of partner countries’, traders in countries like Germany, UK, USA, Korea, Netherlands, France and Japan find loopholes in the said policy network and declare the electronics as ‘second-hand’.

Through the growing turnover of the industry the recycling of electronics became fraudulent and lots of companies are involved in dumping and selling of used electronics.

The term waste is in my opinion misleading because it implies that it is actually worthless. It is not. And so we find all over the world waste economies specializing on the leftover of our fancy lifestyle.

One of this places is the neighborhood of Agbogbloshi in  Accra also sometimes referred to as ‘Sodom and Gomorrah due to high crime rates and prostitution. It got everything that you need: lots of internal displaced persons due to conflict in the north, swampland, neglected investment in health and other infrastructure as well as a lack of economic opportunities.

A vibrant trade has been established between the harbor town of Tema and the Agbobloshi community. An estimated amount of 122.000 tons of electronic devices is shipped into the community by big trucks. 75% of it doesn’t work any more and can’t be repaired. The remaining 91.500 tons are dismantled and separated by an uncountable number of informal workers who buy and sell small quantities of copper and aluminum to wholesalers.

Leftovers are dumped in the near lagoon.

   

The area is on the top 10 list of most toxic places in the world. Using Styrofoam and car tires to fuel the fires that burn away the coating of cables to give access to the copper inside. The released fumes are toxic and pollute the air, the land and the water of the near lagoon. High concentrations of cadmium, mercury, lead, arsenic, dioxin and brominated flame-retardants are found in all of the neighborhood. The toxins stay in food and water and are found on high concentrations of those who work the closest to the fires.

Small kids as young as 10 work on the site and try to make a living. Being able to burn your own cables is already an upgrade, since most kids just scrabble in the dirt to find the smallest pieces of metal. Mostly dragging an old stereo speaker with an attached cable in one hand and a bag in the other, it looks like they are walking their toy-dogs.
But what you see here are only the pets of poverty. Being a child in a poor community like Agbogbloshi is a costly thing and you will start working very early. The boy on the picture looks like nine years old. In fact he told me that he was twelve. His voice was so hoarse that I had difficulties to understand him as well as difficulties to breath.
The fumes released contain high amounts of the named chemicals and affect the development of the nervous system as well as organs like lungs and brain. Direct links between mercury and BFR and cancer can be found in medical literature and it is obvious that the people are not in a healthy state. The average life expectancy of a Ghanaian is 63 years and there are plenty of 80 year old.

As always everybody is friendly and nice and no one harasses me.

Seeing this site and its social and economic dynamics makes you think about the complexity of issues of international development policies.

Sitting on the skeleton of an old PC monitor I look from a distance over the field where single columns of smoke are swirling into town.

There are development plans for the area to upgrade the community and end the toxic trade. The import of used fridges is banned at the moment with police squats in the harbor waiting for those who still import them to pick up their freight and arrest them.

The argument is, that fridges are using up to 40% of the Ghanaian electricity and due to the low energy-efficiency of the old devices they got banned.

The only thing that is going to happen is that the trade with repaired fridges will boom as usually and the average citizen will not be able to afford a new one.

The trade with new devices is in the hand of few and the quality of the products from Asia is very cheap since the Ghana Standards Authority actually has no standards.

Meanwhile in Agbogbloshi Nigerian intermediaries are trading with Chinese wholesaler in the market of electronic capitals such as Guangzhou over the copper extracted from the small boys on the dump site.
Shipped to China it is molten down and new cables are made for new fridges.

Features are added and a new generation of fridges, smartphones, TVs and washing machines with touchscreens and sensors for the freshness of groceries, fish and meat is waiting to be used, neglected, replaced and recycled.

It truly is a globalized world.

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