Heavy, acidic gusts of smoke billow across the Agbogbloshie dump, a wasteland dotted with burning mounds of trash in Ghana’s capital, Accra.
Up to 10,000 workers wade through tons of discarded goods as part of an enormous, informal recycling process, in what has become one of the world’s largest destinations for used electronic goods.
Workers pick through waste at Agbogbloshie
A heap of metal and old electronics
Burns, back problems, and infected wounds are common ailments among these workers, as well as respiratory problems, chronic nausea, and debilitating headaches—brought on by the hazardous working environment and toxic air pollution.
“When I was a small boy, I used to be a footballer—but not anymore,” said Abdullah Boubacar, a 28-year-old who moved to Accra from the northern Ghana town of Tamale in 2008. “I have stomach ulcers and I run out of energy very easily.” Boubacar spends his days smashing up old computers and televisions in search of valuable parts and burning insulated cables to recover copper.
The Agbogbloshie dump is a result of the world’s increasing demand for electronic equipment as consumers continually upgrade their devices and throw out the older ones. A significant proportion of this electronic waste is sent, often illegally, from the West to developing countries across Africa and Asia.
Around 50 million tons of electronic waste, or e-waste, is being thrown away each year, according to a report published this year by the United Nations. That figure is projected to double by 2050. At the same time, only 20 percent of e-waste is thought to be recycled appropriately. The rest “ends up in landfill, or is disposed of by informal workers in poor conditions,” the UN found.
The e-waste problem could expand into a global health crisis, largely affecting urban areas, if not addressed. “E-waste is a growing global challenge that poses a serious threat to the environment and human health worldwide,” said Stephan Sicars, an environmental director at the UN Industrial Development Organization.
In Ghana, the waste arrives via the Port of Tema, 20 miles to the east of the Agbogbloshie dump. Hundreds of thousands of tons of used electronics—mainly from Western Europe and the United States—are delivered in huge containers. They are often labeled as secondhand consumer products, health experts said, so they are not strictly considered waste. But their impact is noxious all the same.