E-Waste: The Overlooked Side-Effect of Technological Development and its Implications for Ghana
Waste electronics and electrical equipment (e-waste) is the fastest growing stream of waste worldwide (UNEP, 2009). Yet, in no part of the world is there coherent data on waste quantities and movements, or adequate recycling infrastructure in place. Only 16% of all e-waste is estimated to be recycled sufficiently (Baldé et al., 2015). Ultimately, significant amounts of global e-waste streams end up in Ghana – the largest e-waste destination in Sub-Sahara Africa. The exorbitant growth of e-waste coupled with its asymmetrical global flows challenges Ghana environmentally, medically and economically. Nonetheless, the whereabouts of discarded electronic items are largely underrepresented in the world’s waste discourse.
The commodification of e-waste results in a complex multi-stakeholder arena around e-waste. Globally, e-waste falls under the framework of the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. The legally-binding rules aim to prevent any international shipment of fully unusable e-waste (Baldé, et al., 2015), however within the convention, there is no clear distinction to say at what point electrical devices turn from a commodity to waste. The export of second-hand goods and donations are legal under the convention, providing a loophole for e-waste shipment (Caravonos et al., 2011). With relatively strict environmental regulations and high labour costs (mostly in countries in the global North), sufficient disassembly is costly and complicated. The export of hazardous waste to countries in the global South poses a cheaper alternative despite coherent legislation (Robinson, 2009). To illustrate the extent of the problem, the EU has translated the Basel Convention into national law, prohibiting the export of e-waste to non-EU countries.
Nevertheless, 2 million tonnes of e-waste is estimated to be illegally exported per year (Geeraerts, 2015), despite corresponding legislation, economic incentives and insufficient monitoring of e-waste fuel exports.
"Annually, up to 13,000 metric tons of imported e-waste is discarded at the 6.2 hectares site known as Agbogbloshie in the greater area of Ghana’s capital Accra, making it the largest e-waste recycling site in Sub-Saharan Africa."
Ghana provides a large, mostly informal e-waste recycling sector as well as a growing demand for second-hand electronic devices. In 2012, e-waste accounted for 6% of all imports to Ghana (Lepawsky, 2014). Since e-waste contains both valuable minerals and highly hazardous contaminants the influx generates considerable socio-economic benefits but has intrusive downsides. Annually, up to 13,000 metric tons of imported e-waste is discarded at the 6.2 hectares site known as Agbogbloshie in the greater area of Ghana’s capital Accra, making it the largest e-waste recycling site in Sub-Saharan Africa (Prakash and Manhart, 2010). Dismantling and recycling of devices are conducted manually, often by children, which releases dioxins into the local ecosystem and contaminates the soil with lead (Greenpeace, 2008; Akormedi et al., 2013). A common example of salvage practice is open incineration of cables for copper recovery. This results in localised contamination of the environment as well as immediate impacts on the health of exposed workers.
Yet, the recovery of high-value materials such as gold, copper and palladium is an important industry sector in Ghana. Up to 201,600 people are estimated to be sustained by the e-waste sector, indirectly contributing up to the US $268 million to national GDP (Daum et al., 2017). On a larger scale, electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) play a crucial role in the state’s aims to accelerate its development. Certain quantities of what are considered Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) in developed nations indeed access Ghana’s highly sought after second-hand market (Amoyaw-Osei et al., 2011).
Functional second-hand donations are projected to support Ghana’s education infrastructure. Indirectly, however, the relatively large amount of second-hand devices in the country (with a comparatively small life-span) generates another source of e-waste.
"Yet, the livelihoods of local communities depend on the income generated through e-waste hence prior efforts to dredge the site have been stopped by the community."
Given the extent of the e-waste influx in Ghana, the need for feasible and sustainable solutions is high, though challenging considering the complexity of the issues and a large number of stakeholders involved. Locally, The Ghanaian Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a major institution in charge which finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Implementing existing laws could potentially contain degradation and health hazards. Yet, the livelihoods of local communities depend on the income generated through e-waste hence prior efforts to dredge the site have been stopped by the community (Daum et al., 2017)
Working with low-cost incinerators could maintain the sector, thus the income, for workers. By facilitating know-how on environmental protection, the incinerators promote environmentally friendly burning. This approach, as piloted before may have the most immediate impact on the local environment and health of the worker while sustaining the sector (Akormedi et al., 2013, Pure Earth/Blacksmith, 2015). However, to fully prevent further environmental degradation and health risks, a large-scale transformation and relocation of the local e-waste industry will be required. As long as the global North-South e-waste dynamic, as a major contributor to local environmental degradation remains unaddressed, the sustainability of purely local work is doubtful.
Further along the production chain, technology companies play a crucial role. Their products containing hazardous materials would be less problematic if the firms engaged in individual producer responsibility (IPR) (Daum et al., 2017). Practically, IPR is a set of practices intended to internalise certain externalities such as waste management. Consequently, technology companies would be obliged to bear the incurring costs of e-waste recycling. Bearing in mind the local e-waste economy, the Basel Convention Secretary and others recommend developing a legal framework for EEE importation to allow the formalisation of the e-waste sector (Amoyaw-Osei, 2011).
In the shadow of increasing tech-developments, digitalisation and the decreasing life-span of technological devices, Ghana has entered the world stage of e-waste. Life-threatening and degrading consequences resulting from practically non-existent producer responsibility coupled with insufficient legislation have been overlooked for too long. Thus, the e-waste sector around Agbogbloshie has grown to be of economic relevance in the region despite its hazardous implications for workers, families and the environment. International and national e-waste legislation requires adjustment when attempting to prevent future destruction and health hazards. As for instance, EU legislation has proven, sufficient monitoring is challenging yet crucial in this inherently non-transparent sector. Ultimately, it appears as a balancing act for Ghana when aiming to prevent illegal influx while assuring access to EEE for Ghanaians and maintaining a source of income for the people currently employed by the e-waste sector. In the light of the inconceivable number of phones, notepads and laptops bought and discarded every day the e-waste influx entering Ghana is unlikely to slow down anytime soon.
Luisa-Marie Neubauer studies Geography and International Relations in London (UCL) and Göttingen, Germany. She particularly engages with questions concerning climate justice, environmental politics and development. Luisa is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and youth ambassador for the ONE Campaign advocating empowerment, education and global partnership. Her undergraduate degree is funded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. She grew up in Hamburg and enjoys race biking, travelling and cooking.
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Baldé, C.P., et al., 2015. The Global e-waste Monitor. United Nations University. Bonn, Germany: United Nations University.
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