Computers are hiding to die

Muhammad Yacobu is sitting at an old computer, excitedly knocking a motor. Drops of sweat dripping down the skin of the 23-year-old Ghanaian, who works as he sings at the top of his voice to blast music out loud from the speakers. It’s barely ten in the morning, but the heat is already stifling at this scrap metal dump in Acehman, on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. A few meters away, his companions dissected devices to extract copper wires. Originally from poor areas of the country, they all arrived at these temporary workshops to take advantage of a vibrant economic sector in this country of 32 million people: the informal recycling of electrical and electronic waste, also called “e-waste”.

Every year, Ghana processes thousands of tons of this waste from its territory, but also from abroad. It is difficult to estimate the actual size due to the share of illegal imports and the lack of data related to the informal sector. The export of electrical and electronic waste to developing countries has been prohibited since 1992 under the Basel Convention. However, the treaty allows the 53 signatories, including Canada, to send equipment that is still operating. This is how old computers, cell phones, refrigerators or televisions end up in recycling centers like Ghana to start their second life there. Most of them arrive in good condition and drive to resell cheap merchandise that most of the residents are inaccessible. Other parts, poorly sorted, damaged in transit, or thrown away by Ghanaians, are either disassembled or burned, so that the parts can be resold or extracted to scrap yards like the one where Mehmet Yacobu works.

“It’s a tough job,” he describes the young Ghanaian in broken English. At his feet, the ground soaked in engine oil. Above his head, thick whiskers of black smoke billowed toward the cracked electricity pylons. “It’s very hot,” he said. Some days I cut my hand. At night, I toss and turn my bed. I sleep badly. Although injuries are common, he and his young companions are not wearing any protective gear. A 19-year-old fellow also has a red eye and a swollen brow bone covered with a bandage. The day before, a shard of metal had wounded his eye.

The most dangerous dangers of this activity are not visible to the naked eye. Around the world, artisanal dismantling and recycling sites like this one are known for their harmful effects on health and the environment. Old devices contain many cancer-causing agents, including Toxic metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic as well as persistent organic pollutants and endocrine disruptors that affect the reproductive and immune systems. Breast milk samples from Ghanaian women living near these sites also revealed an abnormally high concentration of chemical compounds such as flame retardants, which can compromise a child’s physical and mental development, according to a study published in 2019 in college ecology.

But the hard work is worth it, says Muhammad Yaqoub, who hopes to raise the money before returning to his region, the north of the country, where his parents and his pregnant wife are waiting for him with their first child.

The young man opens the door of an old refrigerator, his treasure chest. This is where he stores his metals and copper wires. By selling his collection to a local factory, he could earn the equivalent of $8, 10, or even $20 in a day: a small fortune compared to the $3 a worker earned. This income even allows Mohamed Yacobu to send money to his family. In the country, well-paid jobs often benefit the educated elite. Most Ghanaians are forced to support themselves through the informal sector.

In Acehmann, a man separates copper wires from “electronic waste” (Photo: Merian Demers-LeMay).

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Less than a mile away, a young man is repairing laptops in a wardrobe-sized workshop. Memory cards are stacked on shelves, near a fan blowing hot air from the ceiling. The repairman disassembles the chassis of the HP computer, performs some tests, removes dust, and replaces part of it. it brings The machines have been restored to good condition in the small shop next door to the workshop, where his boss, Kuttor Senanu, sells used computers. Thanks to the profits of trade, the latter could invest in the university studies of his sons.

The man in his forties said that in a shipment of 50 computers, only a few were fixed. These take the path of dismantling and recycling, passing through the hands of Mohamed Yacoub. The rest, once ready to go, is sold to residents in convenience stores and public markets at a fraction of their price when new.

In the dismantling of workshops and small shops, News He was able to read on computer cases of their origin: UK, Germany, Czech Republic, etc. If the majority come from Europe, retailer Kuttor Senanu claims to occasionally receive devices from Canada and the United States, and this informationIt was impossible to verify them.

Flows of “e-waste”, which were mainly exported to China until the latter imposed a moratorium in 2017, are now being absorbed by other countries. In Ghana, electronic devices arrive mainly through the port of Tema, near the capital, or by land through major ports on the continent, such as the port of Lagos in Nigeria. Many scrap dealers buy materials from international companies, then resell them to informal workers, who will separate the components. Metals are extracted from cans, sometimes processed in local factories, but more often again exported to companies located in Europe, the Middle East, China or India.

Ghana is, in a way, a takedown and resale terminal on one of the possible routes for old electronics. Routes that are constantly changing and hard to track, inside and outside Ghana.

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In the dark, ghostly figures roam around the bonfires, flipping electrical wires as if they were meat at a barbecue. The burning of the plastic sheaths gives the flames beautiful rainbow colours. At night, a few men venture into this land sandwiched between the slums of ancient Vadama, where more than 80,000 people live, and the Korley Lagoon, considered one of the most polluted waterways on the planet.

Located in the heart of Ghana’s capital, the land was, until recently, home to the world’s largest electrical and electronic waste dump: Agbogbloshie, nicknamed “Sodom and Gomorrah” in reference to the biblical cities destroyed by divine wrath. Over the years, the site employing 10,000 people has become a notorious symbol of electronics recycling in the Western media. In July 2021, Ghanaian authorities destroyed it and announced that they wanted to build a hospital in this strategic location. But experts believe the move will only serve to scatter the health and environmental problems associated with recycling across the country.

“Over time, several sites like Agbogbloshie are expected to appear in all regions of Ghana,” said Wilson Bako at the offices of the NGO Pure Earth, whose mission is to reduce the effects of pollution on health in various countries. Hundreds of recyclers are looking for land to recycle in different cities, while others will do more recycling in their own backyards, the NGO’s Ghanaian technical director continues. “It won’t be localized anymore like it was in Accra, but a lot of the pollution will happen in the dark places. I think we will see bigger and more widespread environmental and health consequences nationwide.”

Incineration to separate salvageable items from waste produces toxic fumes. (Photo: Merian Demers-LeMay).

Agbogbloshie’s destruction also means that monitoring pollution, setting stricter standards, or implementing projects to clean up the informal sector will be more complex. Pure Earth notably launched an initiative in Agbogbloshie, which encouraged recyclers to use mechanical methods to extract copper from cables – burning the latter was by far the most polluting activity of electrical and electronic waste in the country. With operations dispersed in the region, it will be more difficult for this type of initiative to gain momentum.

Rather than marginalizing these informal recyclers, authorities should instead acknowledge their role and fund their training, says Ebenezer Furko Amankwa, an urban geographer at the University of Ghana. People who work with “e-waste” are involved in waste collection in the city, which allows the authorities to save on waste management. The researcher also notes that they create their own jobs. Trading in this waste is a multi-million dollar industry, in which the government must invest. »

recycling sector Electrical and electronic waste is indeed a veritable goldmine. From a circular economy perspective, recycling makes it possible to reuse metals such as silver, copper, palladium and gold. It is also more profitable to extract gold from electronic devices than from underground, according to a study published in 2018 in the scientific journal. Environmental science and technology.

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While there is still a lot of work to be done to make recycling of “e-waste” healthier and safer in countries like Ghana, it is necessary above all to look at what is happening upstream, in terms of the manufacture and consumption of electronic devices in the world, point out Wilson Paco and Ebenezer Furko-Amanqua.

The amount of electrical and electronic waste produced on the planet exceeds 53 million tons annually and could exceed 120 million tons by 2050, according to a report published in 2019 by PACE (Platform for Circular Economy Acceleration), a platform created by about forty partners, including the Economic Forum global, to promote a circular economy. Devices, which have a very short life, are quickly being replaced by consumers who are looking for new models. Finally, most manufacturers, founded in Asia, continue to incorporate toxic substances such as lead, mercury or flame retardants into electronic devices, without any real legal restrictions, the two Ghanaian experts recall.

According to Cynthia Morinville, who has studied “e-waste” recycling for eight years as part of her Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, “You have to realize that today this industry is fueled by the lives of waste workers in the Global South, by people doing very harmful manual labor.” Which provides a tremendous environmental service on a global scale,” she says.

Think about it when replacing an electrical or electronic device that is still working properly.

This report was produced in Ghana with the support of Fonds québécois en pressisme international (FQJI).

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