Mike Anane is a journalist and an environmental activist. He is a United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 of Honor laureate. For over 20 years, Anane has both documented and investigated the illegal shipment of e-waste from Global Northern countries to Ghana. He is the third son in a family from Accra, and he remembers that as a child, when it rained, children played in the river and lagoon of the capital. At that time the family income came from the sale of agricultural products and fish from the generous ocean. «This city has now become an e-waste dump that pollutes the ocean, the air and the land» he states «At first there were televisions, then came computers, telephones, etc. It’s uncontrollable, and nothing has changed during these last 20 years» he adds.
The images of young children in Accra burning materials among mountains of e-waste are shocking, they can be seen inhaling black smoke as they try to glean metals, such as copper. It is a way of life that reveals the latent poverty of Africa. With respect to Ghana, a general lack of opportunities affects the entire country, although the northern region, suffers the most, as climate change is wreaking havoc and forcing entire families to move to the country’s economic centres. This explains why ever-more people come to Accra, especially to landfills like that of Agbogbloshie, where they can obtain goods worth one or two dollars, every day, in order to survive. In fact, the 50,000 or so people who inhabit the area are not the most disadvantaged in the capital: a stable way of life has risen up from scrap metal; the same materials that we produce and consume in the Global North.
Mike Anane has been threatened for reporting this situation, and demonstrating the double morality of the West. «It is uncomfortable for people when you talk about European companies that, in order to make a lot of money, are breaking their promises, in this case that of recycling properly.» he states. However he has not given up, but rather challenges, and continues to gather information in order to one day sue these companies. «Producers have an obligation to ensure that their products are recycled appropriately. They haven’t done this before and they don’t do it now. Given the environmental and health impact, there is enough here to report them. »
The implications of the electronic Devices we use
The excessive consumption of electronic products has consequences that those who use them are not always aware of. Renewing one device, in many cases, means getting rid of the old one, which ends up in the hands of those who make use of its last vestiges of life expectancy. And what happens next on the chain, when this product becomes useless? It then becomes e-waste and, in most cases, it is sent to impoverished countries. So, e-landfills are created, especially in Asia and Africa, which bring disadvantaged people who are in search of opportunities together; and in trying to earn one or two dollars a day, they tear apart and burn electronic products to extract metals, while being poisoned by inhaling heavy metals and while polluting the land, the air and the ocean.
In 2019, according to the study ‘The Global E-waste Monitor 2020’, humans generated more than 56 million tons of electronic scrap. In terms of per capita consumption this comes to 16.2 kilograms in Europe, 16.1 in Oceania, 13.3 in America, 5.6 in Asia and 2.5 in Africa. From all of this, only 17% was recycled appropriately, mainly in the West, yet where the remaining 83% ended up remains officially unknown. And even if we recycle more and better, we are still producing 9 million more tons of scrap per year and this figure will reach 74 million tons in 2030. According to the report, «the increase in e-waste is mainly due to a higher consumption rate, shorter life cycles and few repair options.»
The figures are frightening, especially in countries that, despite being those that consume the least, end up literally living on top of these outdated devices from Apple, Samsung, HP, Toshiba, Philips, LG, Xiaomi etc. This is because those countries that produce and consume electronic products, which are mainly the richest, do not control the companies that are responsible for recycling them. Collusion exists, as it is cheaper to send e-waste to impoverished countries than it is to recycle it. This process is illegal, and the way to avoid legal action is to register scrap as a second-hand product. By doing this, those countries responsible are violating the obligations of the 1989 Basel Convention, which has been in force since 1992. According to this treaty, the 187 signatory countries have undertaken not to send harmful waste to countries that do not have the means to process it adequately. In the words of The Global E-waste Monitor 2020 «The exemption from the Basel Convention on equipment intended for reuse is compatible with the main environmental objective of preventing the generation of waste», the report clarifies that there is no a consensus on what is or is not technically considered to be waste.
In Africa, where many of these outdated devices end up, most countries do not possess the legislation to address the problem, and when they do, as is the case with Ghana, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, the application of these laws is far from adequate. Governments do not seem willing to alter the way of life that has been established around scrap metal, partly due to a lack of alternatives to this informal but organized and circular economy that, for every 1,000 tons of scrap unloaded, creates 15 jobs in recycling and 200 in subsequent repair work. This situation is reflected in the infamous Agbogbloshie landfill-neighbourhood in Accra, Ghana, where some 5,000 people a day are struggling keep themselves going economically among the scrap metal produced and from devices consumed in the Global North.
Accra is one of the leading e-waste dumping grounds in the world. Why is this?
It is due to the incessant production of electronic devices, which are also planned to become obsolete in a short time. If you buy a phone, a TV or a computer, in two or three months there will be new models on the market. It is planned; it is a deliberate strategy for producers to make a profit. Companies need to make changes and design products that can be recycled and reused and not become waste products as soon as they leave the factory. It could also be said that consumers have been programmed to shop, shop and shop. They have to change their habits, and purchase only what they need and find out about the implications of the products they buy, as the production and consumption of electronic devices have serious consequences.
Why isn’t the Basel Convention working?
Governments do not respect this international treaty. According to this convention, electronic products can be shipped while they are working, but what happens is that this justification is used to send electronic waste that ends up in Ghana, in Africa.
Ghana has introduced laws to alleviate the problem of e-waste, but there are poorly applied. In fact, the government has blamed the Global North. Do you agree?
The government has condemned the delivery of e-waste from developed countries. I would like it to go further and send it back to the ships that brought it here. They say they are trying to slow the arrival of e-waste down, but this is not enough. However, I mainly blame the countries that send this rubbish. We do not have the capacity to stop the flow: there is poverty, corruption and malaria. Sometimes the problems prevail over the governments. That is why I hope that rich countries become aware of this situation, especially because they have the means to control the situation, as they do with weapons.
Who are the residents of Agbogbloshie, Accra’s most famous landfill-neighbourhood?
Young people from the age of six who have been trying to extract metals, especially copper, have been seen in landfills. Some live there and others live in nearby neighbourhoods. Of course, there are older people, over 19, and also some girls. They’re poor, but I wouldn’t say they’re the lower class. Some people come from Accra, Nigeria or the Ivory Coast. When people have trouble getting money they go to the landfills and break and burn e-waste.
This way of life has been shown to have detrimental effects on health. Do you know the cost of pollution-related diseases?
We have a national health system, which is good, but the people who work in landfills, do not go to hospital, except in very serious cases. There are no studies in Ghana on diseases caused by this way of life, however air, soil and water pollution are all-too evident. There are people who can’t do sports, who suffer from diseases caused by pollution from the heavy metals that end up in the ground.
Due to a lack of opportunities, there are people who are used to this way of life, and in some cases they do not want to get rid of the landfills. What alternatives do you suggest?
There are alternatives. Some people spend a lot of time working in landfills. They have learned techniques that they could use in e-waste recycling plants, or they could learn another profession that does not provoke negative consequences for their health. A recycling industry should be formalized with appropriate safety measures.
Would better safety measures not change the situation? Would Ghana still remain as one of the world’s leading dumping grounds? Is there no other possible economic future for Ghana and Africa?
Each country should have its own recycling plants. From Accra, e-waste is sent to Ashanti, and to the west and east of the country. It can be found on the streets, behind houses, all over the country. Ghana, Togo and Nigeria cannot be used to bury the hazardous waste of other countries: it violates the Basel Convention. That’s why I say no, Ghana should not be a dumping ground for the West.
And why does e-waste reach Ghana and not Liberia?
Large companies have been able to hide electronic scrap in containers. At first they did not hide it, and the containers arrived directly, but at one point they began to hide it in cars, among clothes. If you look at other African countries, you will not find many ports that have the frantic activity of Accra, which has good infrastructures for container and freight traffic in Africa.
Ghana has become one of the world’s leading second-hand clothing markets. Is this a new trend?
This is an old practice, but recently fast fashion has produced more rubbish in Africa. We get a lot of clothes that people don’t wear. I have seen winter boots, ski boots, in Ghana. And then there’s the use of polyester and other synthetic fibres. They are cheap, poor quality items, in many cases useless, which end up being burned and polluting the atmosphere or, if not, killing fish at the bottom of the ocean.