Ghana says second-hand clothes are no longer good enough

Second-hand goods from the United States have long been a staple in Ghana, but now the country is seeking to get second-hand goods off its shelves.

For better or worse, second-hand T-shirts from the US often make up the uniform for hundreds of millions of people throughout Africa.

Churches collecting threads for the needy call this goodwill, but many of West Africa's tailors call it "unfair," "unstylish," or "insulting" to a region whose traditional clothing can't win price wars against a container load of "John Edwards 2008" shirts donated from the warmth of the American heart.

Now the West African nation of Ghana is implementing a ban on hand-me-down trade, or at least a partial ban. Ghana's new trade law forbids secondhand boxers, handkerchiefs, and mattresses from entering the country's docks or markets, on the grounds that such imports are, well, gross. ("Unhygienic" in government lingo.)

But traders in the nation's market stalls are vexed.

"The ban on second-hand goods is really going to bring hardships to us and our families since the trade is our only source of livelihood," one vendor told the Ghana News Agency.

"The government will throw us out of business should this ban come into effect," a clothing dealer told the Agence-France Presse last November, before Ghana's police began enforcing the ban.

The ban began last week, yet underwear may be the least of Ghana's second-hand troubles.

Electronic waste – big box televisions, VCRs, computers from the Dos days – is routinely dumped in countries like Ghana as "used electronics" by companies that would pay stiff fees if they tried to recycle the junk in the US or Europe.

Entrepreneurial minds find a use for a tenth of this garbage. At the Aglogloshie dump in Ghana's capital, Accra, migrants from the country's north autopsy computer cadavers, pulling out the still-functioning sound cards and fans that could slide right into newer towers.

But whatever organs they don't take are burned with the rest of the electronic trash on giant bonfires where teenage boys roast cables like marshmallows to access and sell the copper inside.

The lead-arsenic-mercury cocktail wafts throughout neighborhoods and permeates the water table.

"Environmentally, these things are pumped into ponds, streams, rivers,” Ghanaian environmental journalist Mike Anane told me in 2009. “And these are persistent metals. They don’t only bio-accumulate, they also persist in the environment and in the food chain for a very long time.”

Banning handkerchiefs is one thing. Telling a country on the cusp of an internet boom that it can't have an old Dell is a thorny question. Even environmentalists concede how difficult it is to even define electronic waste.

The solution that officials at Ghana's Environmental Protection Agency were pushing when I spoke to them in 2009 was a total ban on all used electronics, no matter how "used."

Ghana's future without passed-down PCs is hard to picture. But imagining its present without used car parts is impossible.

The nation's taxis and tro-tros (mid-90s cargo vans converted into 18-person buses) depend as much on old alternators as they do on gasoline – yet the vice president this week proposed a ban on used car parts, too. Vice President John Mahama blamed battered old car parts for the nation's perilous roadways, where buses routinely collide with buses.

Gruesome photos of car accidents routinely splay across the front pages of the nation's dailies. Forcing car owners to pony up for a decent steering column might clear up some front page space for less morbid photojournalism, Mahama reckoned.

But a more immediate solution might be to import the only Western fashion accessory you won't find in a tro-tro: seatbelts.

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