Ghana is rising, but so are its dump-yards of cast-off appliances

As Ghana's economy booms, its consumers no longer want used appliances shipped in from the West. Now that 'e-waste' is filling dumps and causing environmental woes.

What was once a park in Ghana’s capital of Accra is now a blackened expanse, issuing acrid smoke from burning piles of plastic and metal. Industrial junk –heaps of old car doors and appliances – is scattered everywhere.  A man walks past, carrying the carcass of a full-sized refrigerator on his head.

This is Agbogbloshie, an illegal dump where junked, cast-off appliances from around the world get turned into scrap metal.

Hundreds of shipping containers packed with used refrigerators, old computers, washing machines, and other appliances arrive in Ghana every month. Until recently, many of those appliances sold at a premium. But changing habits of consumers at a time when West Africa is experiencing growth means that more and more secondhand imports are being discarded from the retail market.

Instead, they are finding their way directly to the dump, exacerbating a waste problem that Ghana can’t afford to fix right now.

Ghana once welcomed secondhand imports of everything from TVs to clothing because even locally-produced products were too expensive for average buyers. But that’s rapidly changing: Ghana’s economy grew by 8 percent in 2012, and manufacturers have taken notice of the country’s growing base of consumers. Many are stepping up production on the continent.

Yet shipments of used appliances keep arriving because old appliances are considered hazardous waste, and are expensive to dispose of. Overseas firms seeking to rid themselves of old computers or car parts often donate or sell them, tossing them into a shadowy international supply chain that’s hard to follow. In 2010, environmental activists at Agbogbloshie discovered in old computers several hard drives that appeared to belong to US defense contractors and school districts.

“There have been a lot of quotes [in the world press] about the West dumping its e-waste into Africa,” says Tatiana Terekhova, an electronics waste expert at the United Nations. She suggests that shipments can be both legal and illegal. While some of the arriving goods are simply junk, she says, most have been working appliances that have fed a demand for consumer electronics from Ghana's rising middle class.

Now, soaring scrap metal prices have turned Agbogbloshie into an ad-hoc outdoor factory. A workforce of children and teenagers root, smash, and burn through the world’s electronic junk to rip out valuable components. Often, a cocktail of toxic chemicals is released in the process.

Children like 11-year-old Al-Hassan who – wearing pink flip-flops and a look of tired determination – drags an old stereo speaker along the ground through charred plastic and metal. The magnet inside the speaker attracts a small price, and the boy earns about a dollar a day selling to scrap dealers.

In turn, these dealers illegally export scrap metal, disguised as legal goods like timber or cashew nuts, and in 2010, Ghana's port authority estimated those exports at around $40 million in value. 

Ghanaian legislators recently passed a ban on imports of used refrigerators. But the government is a long way from ending the destructive trade, says Accra city council spokesman Numo Blafo III, who claims that toxic waste from the dump is harming a lagoon that abuts the park-turned-dump. 

“The scrap dealers pouring their e-waste into the lagoon have actually polluted it – all marine life is dead,” he says. "But even the government is finding it difficult to remove them. It seems nobody can stop them.”

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