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Every weekday, Ibrahim wakes up at six in the morning. By eight he is usually bent over a smoking fire, burning the insulation from copper wires, as he has done for the last eight years. Ibrahim is working as a “burner boy” – the name given to the young boys and men who trawl through piles of electronic waste in Agbogbloshie, a vast dump near the centre of Ghana’s capital, Accra, looking for circuit boards and wires to burn.
The abandoned phones, computers, and home appliances stretch across 20 acres in the scrapyard that neighbours the slum Ibrahim lives in, separated by the Odaw River. The Old Fadama slum has been home to poor Ghanaians from the rural regions of the country since the 1980s. What the government sees as a blight of poor sanitation, crime and poverty, the migrants see as an affordable access point to the economic opportunities the capital has to offer.
Like the other burner boys he works with, Ibrahim migrated from north Ghana after dropping out of school and struggling to find work. Friends who moved to Accra before him told Ibrahim about the money they made salvaging copper and other metals from dumped electronics in Agbogbloshie.
At the scrapyard, nobody asked Ibrahim for any qualifications when he started working at 18. He learnt the trade of dismantling and burning electronic waste (e-waste) from the burner boys who were there before him. There is a camaraderie between them – displaced from their homes in the north and working desperately for economic reprieve, Ibrahim says that they look out for one another.
The burner boys have no money to buy tools or protective equipment, so the work consists of smashing monitor screens using just a hammer or a stone to get at the valuable materials inside: copper, gold, steel and aluminium. When the skies are clear, Ibrahim and the other burners set fire to the e-waste – melting away the plastic insulation around wires or in circuit boards to salvage the metal. The black smoke makes Ibrahim cough incessantly and the scrapyard air smells of chemicals and incinerated rubber.
What they manage to recover can be sold to scrap dealers and recyclers for the equivalent of £2 on a very good day and £0.50 on a bad one. It’s a fraction of the living wage estimate for a person in Ghana – around £4 per day – but it is one of the more lucrative jobs in Agbogbloshie and Old Fadama. An older burner, Shaibu, sends the money he can spare back home to support his two little sisters.
Work ends at six in the evening when the sun begins to set and the toll of breathing in the toxic fumes sets in. Ibrahim has chest pains and headaches due to the smoke, and Shaibu sees streaks of blood in the phlegm he expels during his coughing fits. Sometimes when he can afford the expense, he buys a traditional remedy from a man who sells medicine to the e-waste burners – a drink that he says will “wash his heart.” Another burner boy, who is only 16, complained of body aches that painkillers did nothing to ease.
Though the burners speak of similar symptoms, the long-term exposure to e-waste pollution on adults is poorly researched. However, the severe health consequences for children who are born to e-waste worker parents or who are e-waste workers themselves are better documented. Workers on e-waste sites in India experienced decreased lung function, skin disorders, and gastric diseases that cause cramps and liver damage. Pregnant women in those same conditions also experience an increase in stillborn and premature births. Some of Shaibu’s colleagues who became too ill to continue work returned to their home villages in the north. “Some never recovered. Others are being treated with traditional medicine in their villages,” says Shaibu.
The people in and around the scrapyard speak about the smoke as an all-encompassing poison – it’s not only in the air but in the soil, in the water and in their food. Toxins, such as persistent organic pollutants, dioxins and metals like lead and mercury, are released with e-waste burning and absorbed when inhabitants breathe or ingest contaminated food or water.
Reports from non-governmental watch dogs such as the Basel Action Network (BAN) found that the eggs of chickens that foraged around Agbogbloshie were contaminated with alarmingly high levels of toxins. An adult eating just one chicken egg would consume 220 times more chlorinated dioxins and four times more polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) than the tolerable daily intake as advised by the European Food Safety Authority. Chemicals like PCBs were banned in the UK in 1981 because of their environmental toxicity and potential to cause cancer.
In August 2020, police in Accra responded to fears about the toxicity in Agbogbloshie by arresting eight e-waste burners. But arrests seem unlikely to deter the burning. Ibrahim says he is aware of the health hazards of his work as well as the possibility of arrest, “but I have no choice. If I get a better job, I will leave this place, but for now I have to make do with the burning because it is all I have.”
Upwards of 85 per cent of electronics and electrical parts imported into Ghana are from the EU, and a large chunk is dumped as e-waste after entering the country. Only 35 per cent of second-hand and waste electronics in Europe end up in official recycling and collection systems. The rest ends up simply thrown into waste bins, recycled under non-compliant conditions or exported to places such as Benin, Ghana and Nigeria. In 2009, Ghana was receiving about 215,000 tonnes of e-waste every year – equivalent to nine kilograms per resident.
While most of the waste in Agbogbloshie is older technology, the integration of circuit boards and electronics into everyday items means it’s likely that more e-waste will find its way to similar dumps. Collecting and separating the electronics from furniture, clothing and the walls of buildings would lack material recycling value to manufacturers, meaning that the e-waste could have a high likelihood of ending up in landfills or exported to the developing world.
In Ghana, second-hand refurbished phones and laptops, which can be bought for a fraction of the original price, are hugely popular. However, the shorter life-spans of these second-hand electronics mean they become disposable quickly and end up in places like Agbogbloshie. Eighty-five per cent of e-waste in Africa is due to such domestic consumption, highlighting the difficulties in effectively regulating the flow of global flow of electronics. The 1992 Basel Convention criminalised the transport of hazardous materials from OECD countries to the developing world, but there is an exemption for electronics that will be repaired upon arrival.
Opportunistic traders can tag e-waste as soon-to-be second-hand electronics and sidestep the ban, allowing them to dump it as soon as it crosses the border. However, second-hand markets means that a large proportion of non-functioning electronics will actually be repaired and re-sold, but the refurbishment process itself creates waste. Even in the best case scenario, the phones and computers often soon break and find their way to dumps
In Agbogbloshie, however, Shaibu is just concerned with making ends meet. “With Christmas approaching, we all need money to send back home to our families, so I need to burn more e-waste, make some more money and make my mother happy,” he says.
Mike Anane contributed additional reporting
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