Written by : Jamal Hassan
They call it Sodom and Gomorrah, as if it chose to be this way, as if illegally dumping last year’s iPhones should be the responsibility of penniless Ghanaians.
Technology nowadays is no longer built to last; it is built to look good until the next model comes out. This leads to tonnes of unwanted appliances – from laptops to washing machines – being taken to places like Agbogbloshie where thousands of men, women and children work to extract valuable resources from them for recycling. This is a very real and multifaceted problem that affects the health, wealth and well-being of Ghana’s people.
In the late 1990’s, Agbogbloshie was in need of technology. Its population was growing and they had electricity but nothing to use with it. Old televisions and computers were donated to the area from other parts of Ghana; anything that didn’t work went to local landfills as electronic waste (e-waste). Years passed and other countries decided to drop their e-waste in Agbogbloshie until it became what we see today.
From 2016 to 2018, Julius Fobil, professor at the University of Ghana’s School of Public Health studied Agbogbloshie. He found that “The workers can’t do anything about the poor air quality because they have to earn a living, so it’s a trade-off. They earn money but their health suffers.”
Burns and back pain are common. The fumes given off by burning plastic cables to uncover copper wires inside not only lead to breathing problems, they also affect pregnant women.Agbogbloshie is also home to one of Ghana’s largest food markets and livestock often graze in the are, therefore it is only a matter of time before all Ghanaians are affected. But there is hope. It’s all about perspective.
Agbogbloshie is a rich source of copper, aluminium, steel, glass, plastic and gold. E-waste is separated, dissected and valuable resources are extracted to be sold or recycled. In the many circuit boards found in this massive scrapyard, there are more precious metals that can be found than by conventional mining. If stripped correctly, copper wire can be recovered from cables easier and cleaner than burning. Moreover, the leftover plastic can – and often is – shredded and sold to factories as recycled feedstock for clothing and other materials.
But it is not all just broken e-waste. The expertise gained from a career of taking technology apart has taught workers how appliances work, allowing them to repair and refurbish what they find. There is an entire industry with its own economy and now is a better time than ever for investors to get in at the ground floor.
Let’s do a cost-benefit analysis. On average, between 150,000and 280,000 tonnes of e-waste enter Agbogbloshie each year. Most of this includes aluminium and steel frames, as well as copper wires.
When sold, the mean price of copper is worth 33% more perkilogramme if stripped rather than burned. That means even if copper wires made up only 1% of the total weight of annual e-waste in the scrapheap, investment in wire stripping machines for clean copper could generate an increase of between 7.5 million to 14 million cedis per year in profits alone, if sold abroad to countries such as the UK. Even if investors were to run headfirst into projects in Agbogbloshie, with no care for pricing on wire stripping machines, purchasing 1000 units of the highest quality machines, each costing 7,200 Ghanaian Cedis at retail price, then – factoring in shipping and living waged labour costs – it would take no more than three years to see a return on this investment.
Moreover, recycling steel and aluminium for construction not only benefit the environment but also save money. Recycled scrap steel is 70% cheaper to make and reduces harmful emissions by 80%. The difference for aluminium is even greater, with a 95% reduction to energy costs when recycled. This means any would-be investor in Agbogbloshie could very easily become a serious contender in the metallurgy and construction industries.
Anyone wishing to empower Agbogbloshie would not be forced to do so alone. There are many organisations, both local and foreign, working hard to transform the area.
Pure Earth been working withlocal scrap collectors since 2013 to envision a future for Agbogbloshie, in which recycling centres in with automated wire-stripping unitseliminate the need to burn wiresfor copper. Moreover, their projects aim to train workers in accounting and business so that they may become entrepreneurs themselves.
Green Advocacy Ghana’s website is home to many Case Studies detailing many ways to help improve conditions in AgbogbloshieGreen Advocacy Ghana, run by Bennet Nana Akuffo, has published numerous reportsdetailing strategies to improve working conditions and production. They have outlined the need for recycling centres to be built in Agbogbloshie to centralise the production of its resources. They are also a main provider of wire stripping machines and therefore could advise investors on which ones to provide for workers. Over the last 10 years they have expanded their efforts and partnered with the German development agency, GIZ – delivering millions of euros in resources to the area. They hope to build a sustainable, efficient recycling system at Agbogbloshie, as well as a health clinic and football pitch for workers.
Another organisation worth investing in is the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform. A project created by architects, Dk Osseo-Asare and Dr. Yasmine Abbas. Their focus is to make Agbogbloshie into a self-sustaining powerhouse of production and innovation. They have built modern workshops made from materials found only in the scrapheap where they teach engineering skills and product design using scrapheap material. Not only this, but they also offer open access on their website to instructions on how to safely dismantle e-waste to extract resources.
It is time to cease with seeing Agbogbloshie as a wretched hive of scum and villainy. It has problems that can be solved – whether that be as a lone entrepreneur starting their empire among the scraps, or as a collaborative effort with any of the incredible organisations working there already. It is not a wasteland but a diamond in the rough, all it takes is the right tools and a good eye, and it will shine.
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