Monday, July 20, 2009

E-Waste in Africa: Why are we not more outraged?

Greepeace picture from Ghana showing "boys burning electronic cables and other electrical components in order to melt off the plastic and reclaim the copper wiring. This burning in small fires releases toxic chemicals into the environment."

A review article I'm writing for a local research journal is seriously clipping my procrastinatory wings and also affecting my imaginary social life.

*Sigh* I'm sure the article will make for good toilet reading...either you can enjoy it on the toilet or if you run out of toilet paper...

Anyway, a preliminary review of the article came with a comment on whether I had thought about the impact of e-waste on asthma in African countries...
"Ermm no", I haven't....! I said
"E-Who?" is what I thought

I quietly went to my faithful friend (the Google search button) to find out what the @#$#@$@ 'e-waste' was anyway!!

To cut a long story short, 'e-waste' stands for electronic waste and is basically the dumping of old electronic devices in poor countries such as ours. Last year, I saw a BBC report flash before my eyes on the phenomenon in Ghana. It showed children scavenging around heaps of rubbish. Some of the piles were on fire. I was appalled at the time but now I'm just down-right disgusted.

Did you know that 75% of the old electronic shipped to Nigeria (for example) is probably irreparable junk? A small percentage (25%) is used while the rest ends up in land-fills and dumping areas where it is burnt. The same thing happens in Ghana.

Greenpeace International did some work on electronic waste in Ghana and their findings were published in an aptly entitled article: Poisoning the poor- Electronic Waste in Ghana. Now I'm not one to endorse some of the more radical and dramatic methods that Greenpeace uses to make statements but I think that this article raises some interesting issues very pertinent to our health here in the big GH.

Some facts from the Greenpeace article:
  • E-waste is exported to Ghana often illegally
  • Unprotected workers, many of whom are children, dismantle old computers and TVs with things such as stones in search of metals that can be sold.
  • The remaining plastic, cables and casing is either burnt or simply dumped
  • The remaining waste contains toxic metals including lead, mercury, cadmium,
  • Samples collected by Greenpeace contained toxins known to promote cancer
  • Some toxins collected are know to interfere with sexual reproductive development
Just imagine all the toxins we are inhaling or what is getting into our water supply. Anyway, in brief, this article reminded me of the furtive off-loading of still-unknown -substances in the port of Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire in 2006. These substances were linked to deaths and people being taken ill. Is Africa literally one big dumping site for the the industrial world's trash?

Also why is it that we completely take for granted our own health and well-being in Africa?

Okay, now back to the article. It is due today. I'm looking at an 11:53pm completion time. That still qualifies for a "By Monday" deadline....right?

An old obsolete computer currently decorating our office. Once we throw this out, it could probably end up in the same place as its imported counterparts; burning in a land-fill somewhere in Accra. Scary thought.


Kwegyirba Aggrey-Orleans said...

Lol. I don't think 11:53pm qualifies as Monday oo? Unless you sleep with your boss! Hehehe. But as for the dumping problem, Ghana is supposed to have passed some Anti-dumping Laws a couple of years back. I wonder what happened to it. Plus there are supposed to be anti-dumping measures in the WTO agreement but obviously, the West is flouting it and looking out for itself only. Who is looking out for us?

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

I am glad you brought this up. There are several reasons why we can't talk. The primary one is the media. Almost every journalist 'specialises' in politics, the local bickering and rumour-mongering type that leads nowhere than bitter and acrimonious tribal warfare or politically correct, conflicts. We need trained Environmental Journalist to focus on issues like these. They need to bring it to light for the populace to discuss and express their misgivings and vent their anger on the government, for the government to act on it. But what do they talk about:
1. The President's mispronunciation of words;
2. The chasing and seizure of cars;
3. Political vindictiveness (real or imaginary) etc

One can easily determine the political inclination of any newspaper by its headline. Vilifcation of government and opposition has become the soul occupation of many a journalist. What then do we expect, but the neglect of the environment in which we live to the detriment of our very lives. Stripping this down to the barest essentials, we play politics with the lives we live.

The second reason has to do with that dependency syndrome. How many African leaders can stand firm against US in its exportation of e-waste. None! With the exception of the Cote d'Ivoire issue, which you stated I don't believe any African country has ever tried that. Even with that it took the citizenry's bold reaction against the government for this to come out and even then they began with denial. Just this week I heard the UK would be bringing back into their country tonnes of e-waste they exported to Brazil. At least the BRICS (Brazil, India, China) have started biting and the world is listening. Can Ghana 'talk', Abena? I believe we cannot. For how do you slap a lion in whose mouth your hand is locked, hmm?

That's why we are not angry, let alone outrage. The problem would be solved if we have just one newspaper dedicated to the environment just as they are to politics, the problems would be solved.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

To add unto my earlier comment, today's Daily Graphic carries the news of the e-waste you are blogging (at least I heard it first on your blog) and guess what? It is in the middle page (24/25). NOT THE FRONT PAGE. And do you know what is the front page news? EX GRATIA REPORT FLAWED. Who would die directly from ex-gratia report. But we would die from e-waste. The DG article goes on to tell us why we cannot do anything because the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) established to protect us has no strategy, can you believe that?

Abena said...

Hehehe Kwegyriba, very funny!
In the end I was able to get it in around 10:00ish..
Thanks for the info on anti-dumping laws...I just wish laws were not made to be broken...
Indeed, no one is really looking out for us...Time for people power action!

Abena said...

*Wow* Nana Fredua, you really hit the hammer on the nail there. Indeed, Ghanaians are more interested in petty political bickering. This morning most of the radio airtime was devoted to seemingly pointless discussions on the ex-gratia report. I had no idea there was something on e-waste in the Graphic this morning...will have to look out for it. Thanks for the information.
I cannot believe the EPA has no strategy!! They better start working on a plan. After all why do they exist? It is appalling.
I'm glad the UK will start importing back their junk. After all the Obama hype, you would think Ghana would be getting more respect in the world...but if you have an EPA without a strategy you can see why most African countries continue to be regarded as jokes.

Anonymous said...

Wow i'm glad you posted this. All i can say is i am glad there are people that care. I have been in discuss and rage for the past year when i really realized what was going on. I saw the BBC show and i could not believe what i was seeing. I have been working on some things to get this is shape i dont want to see my country that is progressing to look like "BOOLA" country. I know how petitions is America work but not quite sure how they work in Ghana i have been looking online for information on how laws and what not are passed in Ghana. Can you believe i went to the Parliament's website and there was nothing...NOTHING!!! i'm wondering if we running a country here or an up and coming company?? Anyway i'm trying to do something about it..petition, PSA, you name it im on it. But i cant do it on my own so if your intrested in joining me in this revolution :D you can message me!
facebook: regina a
hotmail: jessy2013@hotmail

Leave me a message knowing your interested and your not some random person. thank you!

Abena said...

Anon: Sign me on!!! I hope other people reading this will be interested in a petition!
Will msg you..

Nana Yaw Asiedu said...

Very informative post. Knew about e-waste, but could not be bothered. Now, I feel differently.

The EPA has enabling and empowering rules and laws, but it does not feel enabled and powerful to stop this rot. I am told one particular factory in Tema spews tiny iron filings in the air. People will breathe it and get ill. Somebody at the EPA will counts each ailment in padded accounts at the bank.

About petitions, they are 'sponsored'. Best by ministers. But everybody (and govt) has pet projects. And the petition may fall on deaf ears. Can do some more research on that, though.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

would be interested...

Kekeli said...

First,I really like your blog.
I recently saw a video on youtube on e-waste.The video is" E-waste from Antwerp to Ghana" and I have to say I was appalled to see all that electronic waste being dumped on us. Isn't it funny how easy it is for "crap" to be "imported"(I use the term loosely) into our country and yet its almost impossible for us to export bananas for instance, just because they dont have a "standard" size. Yes, I understand that not everyone is able to afford a new computer, television and so on but surely there have to be some sort of regulations. This is just ridiculous.

Abena said...

Thanks for all your comments! I'm amazed about the interest in this topic out there.

@Nana Yaw: Thanks for the legal insights..Somehow I feel it is way to easy for factories/companies to get away with transgressions. The EPA really needs to be strengthened by the powers that be. I suppose the best way would to make certain issues pet projects for particular ministers/MPs... The problem with the political fraternity is that they are too busy thinking about 2012 already.

@Nana F: I admire your passion!

@Kekeli: Thanks!I will have to check out the video. You know, I had never thought about that; it is so easy to dump useless plastic toys etc in Ghana but almost impossible for us to export our produce to the EU/USA. I live for the day when we are loading our ships with unknown toxic waste bound for dumping in European ports!

novisi said...


let me clear my throat!

i'm appalled by these things and when i say i'm appalled i mean i'm appalled. hehehehe. lol. it's not a laughing matter at all!

as one who is more than interested in technology, this issue has always been on my mind! e-waste! It’s just another name for waste, Just like nuke waste. With my background, I’m against this nomenclature because I’d rather call ‘junk electronic data’ (unwanted data) like i virus activity taking up bandwidth as e-waste but not the solid/liquid/gaseous matter that forms equipment for electronics. but a name for hype is not totally bad right? I followed the Ivory Coast issue too. it's sickening in addition to my being appalled.

but i want to look at this issue with political glasses and when i say political glasses i mean political glasses. that is the basic reason why i blog at all and that is a passion 'by default' (lol) and that is how my comment would go!

it's about time we demystified politics.

i tail-off respectfully from where all other commentaries that touched on 'politics' ended. first of all, i say (not make), THIS ISSUE IS A POLITICAL ISSUE as much as it is an environmental issue!

the way we look at politics, mostly as some..., well i can hardly find the right description, but certainly the way we look at politics basically has got to change in this 21st century! and i'm speaking to all the world. Obama included (Obama is accusing some of playing politics with his health care plan and i find it absurd).

we must stop looking at politics as only an exercise that involves interest int seeking power or authority! we must stop looking at politics as only a matter for political parties or for those individuals who claim they are political activists.

and let me seem to digress a bit: i believe that in our quest to draw attention to these ills we tend to lose certain basics.

we, instead of confronting it from the political angle would only try to play safe by coming across as 'environmentalists' or a 'coalition against e-waste' or some 'wonderful people against some disease' and in so doing leaving leaders with authority looking like they are the 'political' ones who are not paying attention. and then when indeed they don't pay attention then too, instead of calling them to order, we would rather demonize politics.

The media is not interested not because the issue is not 'political' (on the contrary it is actually political) but basically because it doesn't generate the amount of 'interest' like discussions over the 'petty' issues that make sales. the media must survive! a hard fact in this man-made Ghana is that most of the newspapers are broke (or challenged, if you want) and they need to sell.

why would a JSS gal buy Ebony newspaper that talks about sexual positions (which is a wonderful subject i would encourage anyway) but never the Financial Times. is is just a matter of availability? i don't think so because the Finanacial Times too is available right? or?

so no matter the number of papers that run commentaries or reports on these issues, if we continue having dealings with these issues as 'non-political' but rather reserved for some academic exercise leaving out the mass of the people and allowing only a few to continue clogging the media space with pettiness sex and prayers and pastors then we ain't going nowhere!

novisi said...


what we need to do is to make it clear that this is a political issue that deserves political attention. and of course it is! confronting it involves activism, mobilization, debate and what have you. just like this 'petition' we are talking about. and such mobilization is basically nothing but politics. it's about policies. it's about choices! we may choose to have the pollution and we may choose to fight it. and we may not choose at all, but someone else may choose for us without our consent!

politics affects all human endeavors. like Nana Yaw points out, the waste on the other hand means money for some people. what does it mean to you? it's a choice!

so let's talk about this just as the ex-gratia is talked about. now, there is the issue of a so called 'one-laptop-per-child' programme that is being talked about for instance, this was started by the previous administration and the current admin says they would continue it and i hardly hear people make the point that we don't need those 'toys' for the sake of the environment!

i have not done a full blog on this issue but i have mentioned the issue of the 'junkness' of this policy more than once in passing in some of my blogs.

some would not speak against it for the fear of being labeled for or against a political party or whatever! but i believe once you are clear in your mind there's no need to worry about the pettiness. i don't! i confront it. else how do you even cure the pettiness if you are not ready to confront it.


that one laptop-per-child policy that seeks to provide children with 'toys' (junks even) computers to generate interest or whatever is a bad policy against the environment! thus, aside the economic waste (value for money) which i leave for economic politics. it is bad because we are talking about computers that have little use and won't be long before they become junks. these junks would rape the environment and leave it without clitoris or 'environment genital mutilation'!

anyone who is serious about e-waste must be conscious about such pseudo computer literacy programmes that have the tendency to do more harm than good.

what is the alternative then in that direction? the laptop i'm even using to type these words (a top notch one) has a potential damaging effect on the environment. so it is a matter of opportunity cost. what do we go for so that at the end of the day at least, little or no damage is done to the environment while at the same time a lot is gained from the usage of the computer.

that is where it is just wiser to go for computers that have a lot more usage over a long enough period of time to at least balance the equation. at least! in any case children are already using the same computers that we all use. they are capable of using these for good work. so what is the point??? or we want them to only play games??? and there are so many gaming systems around too. so really why put the environment at more danger???

i rest my thesis here for now!

thanks for the post!ally nothing but politics.

MIghTy African said...

thanks for touching on this topic, I know this issue is dear to the heart of many Ghanaians, will save this post for future use.

Abena said...

@Novisi; Thanks for the thorough thesis! I agree with many points you made regarding the interest in the issue and the political angles.
I totally disagree with you on the "One laptop per child" programme. I think they were initial environmental concerns and these have been addressed with new recyclable versions of the laptop. The reason I disagree with you is the fact that African kids lag so far behind their western counterparts in terms of IT knowledge. I'm always amazed what 6 year olds in America can do on computers. Yet many 16 year olds in rural areas in Ghana have never even seen a computer. The one laptop programme provides some opportunity to open up their worlds to computing at an early age. In a increasingly IT-driven world how else can we advance and compete with others from across the globe when we lag so far behind?

Abena said...

@MightyAfrican: Thanks...I think more Ghanaians are becoming aware. I'm a firm believer that knowledge is the only way we can bring about changes.

novisi said...

i'm very so sure so that if you look a bit more closely at the one laptop per child issue you'd find interestingly that you don't "totally disagree" with me.

1. we both agree that children need to be exposed to technology! 6 year olds, etc. you are for that and i'm for that too. that makes 'total disagreement' minus 'some agreement = 'some agreement'!

2. I agree with you (again) that African children lag so far behind in IT. even the African adults 'no dey see top'. so for me it's a clear tragedy! so perhaps, here i 'more than' agree (i overly agree).

3. your question is sweet: " else can we advance and compete with others from across the globe when we lag so far behind?"

i believe the answer to your question is not one laptop per child. indeed, i'd happily borrow from the saying that 'when you have a drum you don't get the best rhythm by beating it's sides. and that is just what we seek to do with this one laptop per child thing- beating the sides of the drum!

when you beat the sides you still get rhythm but you don't get the 'best' rhythm out of what is available.

Africa or 'whoever's' best bet in catching up with the rest of the technologically advanced world is to delve deep and very deep indeed into available advanced technology!

and so the way to go is not to put together 'toys' for kids to play with today and 'outgrow' them tomorrow leaving us with nothing but garbage that would mutilate the genitals of the environment!

the thing to do is to give the kids the proper thing. how about having pools of 'proper' PCs in the form of labs in schools and libraries all over the country for kids with skilled tutors???

the funny bit here is that, our leaders tell us that there is money for ex-gratia but same people would say for kids we must go for 'one laptop per child because' we don't have money- that we are poor Africans! and things like this make me wish i had a gun!

so really we agree, and you would agree with me that there are better alternatives that result in equal pollution of the environment like i sighted by referencing my laptop but which clearly give better output (opportunity cost)! and that is what i'm talking about!