By Phoebe Bardsley
In reality, Agbogbloshie is much more complex than its media reputation as ‘trash world’ or a ‘dumping ground for the West’. Through the toxic fumes, it is a thriving community of recyclers, innovators and artists that change the way we value our waste. Global trends in electronic usage mean that African communities like Agbogbloshie have the potential to lead the way in finding innovative solutions to the fast-growing problem of e-waste.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, nearly half of the world’s households now have access to a computer. Technological change is happening so quickly that most electrical products are discarded before they are obsolete and by 2050, we are on track to produce 120 million tonnes of electronic waste per year. That’s equivalent to more than twice the total weight of the Great Wall of China. Alarmingly, only 20% of the world’s e-waste is collected and recycled.
Unfortunately, the impact of activities at Agbogbloshie on the environment remain vast and are intrinsically linked with the health of citizens in the broader community. Some of the most prevalent health effects are associated with poor working and living conditions that predispose people to physical injury, stress and exposure to mosquitoes. The pollution of the air, soil and local water systems have caught the attention of environmentalists and public health workers globally.
The Odaw River, which runs through Agbogbloshie, has high concentrations of heavy metals and other pollutants. This feeds into the Korle Lagoon and into coastal waters where locals rely on fishing for a staple seafood diet. Smaller, sicker and sparser fish populations have been noticed since 2002. Toxins can also enter the food chain through the soil where local people grow their food.
Burning and dismantling devices causes the release of various chemicals into the air. Heavy metals and other toxic particles have the potential to cause many adverse health effects. Lead is especially concerning as workers have been found with high concentrations in their blood and urine. Lead poisoning is known to cause coma, convulsions, mental retardation and even death; longer exposure can affect brain development in children. Air pollution has far-reaching effects to the broader community and even people driving past Agbogbloshie each day.
Children and pregnant women are at a particularly high risk when exposed to pollution from e-waste. Developing foetuses are already exposed to some toxins through the placenta, which can lead to many developmental defects later in life. Some toxins have been found in the breast milk of women in Agbogbloshie. Children are also developing and have a higher exposure than adults because they breathe, eat and drink more relative to their size.
If e-waste is processed in such a way that it causes less harm to the environment and our health, the overall benefits of recycling will far outweigh the costs. In fact, there is up to 350 grams of gold in one tonne of mobile phones – more than you would find in a tonne of gold ore! UNU estimates that the secondary raw materials associated with e-waste are worth 62.5 billion dollars. Innovators from around the world are shining the light on this missed opportunity.
Joseph Awuah-Darko is a young, Oxford-educated social media sensation. I met Joseph at his recent solo exhibition at Gallery 1957 in Accra. Travelling the world adorned with Gucci, he is not your typical environmental activist; Joseph promotes a reasonably lavish lifestyle to his 19.7K followers on Instagram. In person, he displays an unquestionable thirst to make a difference.
His exhibition, ‘Our Treasures’, includes pieces of art formed from materials found at Agbogbloshie. “The reason why I called this exhibition ‘Our Treasures’ is because I really believe that there is a world of undiscovered and unrealised wealth within Agbogbloshie”.
Alongside his artistic endeavours, Joseph founded a social enterprise, Agbogblo.Shine, with the aim to recycle e-waste into high-end furniture with a distinctly African aesthetic.
Then there are the thousands of entrepreneurs at Agbogbloshie scrap metal market who dedicate their days to giving new life to the products we no longer find use for.
We met Emos, who moved to Agbogbloshie when he was just 11 years old, after losing both his parents. Emos was able to find a community here and support himself by harvesting scrap metal. Today, Emos runs a successful recycling business and school for local children.
Amongst all the chaos, there is an underlying order to business at Agbogbloshie. Workers specialise in specific electrical equipment or motor vehicle parts. Apea has been a recycler at Agbogbloshie for 13 years. He showed us how he specialises in repairing blender motors so they can be reused in new devices.
The future is uncertain for the informal recycling community at Agbogbloshie. It is hoped that 22,000 self-sustaining jobs will be created for the local youth through the recycling project. Perhaps the greatest opportunity for the community lies in the electronic waste fund introduced by the Ghanaian government, which could provide the capital required to expand and formalise pre-existing businesses.
Government must be proactive in engaging with these stakeholders to ensure that the new e-waste systems are implemented in ways that leverage the pre-existing skills of the local workers, have minimal impact on people’s health and the environment and benefit the local community.
Through collaboration and innovation, Africa has the potential to be a leader in e-waste recycling. Designers, consumers and recyclers have a responsibility to advocate for a circular economy that is regenerative by design.
Phoebe Bardsley was an intern at ACET in January 2019. She graduated with a Bachelor of Economics with a major in Quantitative Economics in December 2018