The World Is Waking Up On Agbogbloshie “E-Waste Hoax”

“You don’t burn down a thief’s house – you thoroughly search it”
Ghanaian Proverb

For several years me and my colleagues at Fair Trade Recycling have been working very hard and traveling across the globe from one “e-waste dump site” to the other, from one conference to the other, and from one meeting room to the next. Personally, it was rather annoying and heart wrenching that organizations like BAN(Basel Action Network) continued to spread stories in the Western media about e-waste dumping at Agbogbloshie in Accra. I’m not denying and I’ve never denied the conditions at Agbogbloshie. I know that young men(mostly from the northern regions of Ghana) work in the recycling of metals at Agbogbloshie under very bad conditions. I know the soil there is highly polluted with heavy metals. I know the air is frequently contaminated by the smoke from their burning of tires and wires. Nobody at Fair Trade Recycling or myself denies these facts.

A young man starts fire with a car tire at Agbogblshie. Photo by Emmanuel N.

A young man starts fire with a car tire at Agbogblshie. Photo by Emmanuel N.

However, I do not agree with the extend to which BAN and other organizations have exploited the workers at Agbogbloshie with the help of Michael Anani(who claims to be an environmental journalist in Ghana). These groups used many photos of these poor young men who came to Agbogbloshie to “hustle” to put food on the table for their families. There are so many e-waste recycling or dump sites around the world. One of such is Guiyu in China. That site is more complex and processes far more electronic waste than Agbogbloshie. Yet it is Agbogbloshie that is labeled ” the world largest e-waste dump site” or “the place the world’s electronics go to die”. And photos taken of young people in Agbogbloshie parade special media slots on CNN, BBC, PBS, etc.

Two young men removing copper wires from old electric motors. Photo by Emmanuel N.

Two young men removing copper wires from old electric motors. Photo by Emmanuel N.

It is no secrete that even though workers at Agbogbloshie use very basic hand tools and haul used electronics(which they buy from house to house in Accra and its suburbs) with hand carts to Agbogbloshie, these journalists and BAN claim MILLIONS OF TONS of e-waste is hauled to and processed at Agbogbloshie without any data to back them. They claim “criminals” from Ghana import these waste electronics from Europe and US to dump them in Agbogbloshie. My question has been “what’s the importer’s economic incentive to participate in this scheme”? No one has been able to answer this question over these years!

Finally, the world and Interpol are listening and have started questioning these stories of “millions of tons of e-waste” dumping in Africa.  Thanks to Robin Ingenthron for his hard work. Read more http://www.businessinsider.com/r-europe-fails-on-electronics-recycling-goals-2015-8#ixzz3kGINpL3z
It is rather unfortunate that Joe Benson(used electronics repairer and importer to Nigeria) was jailed based on these false stories. And it’s also sad that all the Millions of dollars that have been raise in the name of solving the e-waste problem in places like Agbogbloshie have never reached the poor people whose photos they have used all over the world. I hope that more concrete steps like the one at the link above will be made by governments and international agencies to find the truth and understand the nature of recycling, repair and reuse markets in developing countries like my Ghana.

Advertisements

Agbogbloshie E-waste Dump?

I remember Agbogbloshie as one of the usual places in Accra where the guys from the northernern part of the country work. They come knocking from door to door to buy alluminum and bottles and any other scrap item they could get. I remember saving coca-cola bottles I later sold to them to make some extra money for my next football. Over the years, Agbogbloshie has become a very complex informal recycling site. It has grown from the recycling of bottles, glass and alluminun to heavy metalls from tractors and any form of motor vehicle. One of my friends who worked there told me that they prefer motor vehicles because they contain larger quantity of metals and electrical wires. As Ghana’s consumption of electronics grew so has the informal recycling of household equipments grew.

For over two decades, I have never considered this site as the largest e-waste dump site in the world until I read artiles and saw videos in the mainstream media in Europe and the USA. I was surprised for a few reasons:

1. There are very few electronic items in Agbogbloshie to even consider it as Ghana’s locally generated e-waste dump site.

Scrap metal from Auto parts in Agbogbloshie. The site is an auto junk yard than e-waste dump site.  Photo by Emmanuel N.

Scrap metal from Auto parts in Agbogbloshie. The site is an auto junk yard than e-waste dump site. Photo by Emmanuel N.

2. The surface area of Agbogbloshie cannot contain the “world’s e-waste” considering the many junk auto parts that are already at the site.

3. The young men who work there use very simple tools and most of the time use hand-pushed carts to haul scrap. From my experience working in a recycling plant, there is no way these young men could haul “millions of tons” of e-waste and process them using hammers and chissels.

Two young men removing copper wires from old electric motors. Photo by Emmanuel N.

Two young men removing copper wires from old electric motors. Photo by Emmanuel N.

However, I acknowledge the fact that there is a problem- but its not about young men taking things apart with primitive tools. Neither is it an import issue. Ghana imports almost everything we use. The problem however, is the fire-burining wires for the valuable coper.

Three young men burn wires at Agbogbloshie to recover copper. Photo by Emmanuel N.

Three young men burn wires at Agbogbloshie to recover copper. Photo by Emmanuel N.

To find the right solutions for this problem we need the correct diagnosis. We cannot find the right solutions if we keep exagerating the figures and the conditions on the ground. It does not help my country in any way if wrong statistics are published. A few projects have already failed at Agbogbloshie because they based their projects on false data.

Awudu(physically challenged) of John The Baptist Radio&TV Repair shop fixing a bad CRT TV Main Board. Most physically challenged in Ghana sit the traffic lights and beg for alms. Photo by Emmanuel N.

Awudu(physically challenged) of John The Baptist Radio&TV Repair shop fixing a bad CRT TV Main Board. Most physically challenged in Ghana sit at the traffic lights and beg for alms. Photo by Emmanuel N.

 

Incriminating African business men and women for crimes they have not commited will only lead to poverty and hence an increase in the fire pits at Agbogbloshie. Our country depends on these business men and women to provide technology at affordable prices to students and small businesses and hard working families. I am an example of how used electronics help families and young minds to aspire and dream for better tomorrow.

Apprentices of John The Baptist TV&Radio Repair Shop in Accra repairing CRT TV main Boards. Photo by Emmanuel N.

Apprentices of John The Baptist TV&Radio Repair Shop in Accra repairing CRT TV main Boards. Photo by Emmanuel N.

Lets put in a little more effort to find the facts and then we will discover that there are so many hard working,talented technicians and inverntors in Africa and all they need is true partnership and opportunity.

My reaction to the film “The E-Waste Tragedy” sponsored by BAN 2014

My reaction to the film “The E-Waste Tragedy” sponsored by BAN 2014

  • Emmanuel Nyaletey

You can tell how you’ll end your day by how you started it

African proverb.

This proverb literally means that most of the time, one’s day will be determined by how much planning one has done from the start of the day. However, my first day at the 2014 E-Scrap Conference did not end as I planned.

The day started in meetings with recyclers from around the country and all over the world. Most were  very friendly and enthusiastic about their recycling work. As Robin Ingenthron (founder of Fair Trade Recycling) introduced me to colleagues in the hallway to the registration desks, he kept raising one of the most important topics I’ve been trying, over the past months, to find answers to- The case of Joe “Hurricane” Benson. Joe Benson was born in Nigeria, and owned a business “BJ Electronics” based in the UK.  BJ Electronics had a reuse license with the UK Environmental Agency, which Mr. Benson used to trade in used electronics, selling to importers from his home country. Benson had traded used electronics in West Africa for over 20 years, until he was accused five years ago of dumping “e-waste” for “primitive” recycling.

It was very interesting to me to hear all the different views on this case throughout the day, as I tried to have the attendees sign a petition to free Mr. Benson, who was sentenced to jail last summer for exporting the used electronics to Nigeria from the UK. To find possible answers to my questions I decided to attend a film presentation, sponsored by BAN (Basel Action Network) and presented by Jim Puckett. The film, by Cosima Dannoritzer, was titled “ The E-Waste Tragedy”. This film became the highlight of my day that I did not plan for.  Having grown up in Ghana, I was asked to write down my reactions to the film.

  1. Time

The film starts with Mr. Michael Anane (an environmental activist in Ghana) at the Accra junkyard known as Agbogbloshie.  Mr. Anane is collecting scrap plastics from old CRT computer monitors that bear property tags of some organizations in the UK. Anane takes these broken plastic materials to their original owners in the UK and demands to know why they ended up in Accra Ghana.

As much as I admire Mr Michael Anane’s courage, I see a glaring problem. By flying to the UK with these “scrap plastics” from old CRT monitors that bear the property tags of some government agencies in the UK, he had by-passed about 20 years of the products’ life. Those 20 years represent the most important segment of the reuse-recycle chain in Ghana. One can easily see that the plastic materials that Mr. Anane collected at the dump site are more than ten years older than those being imported today, based on the design of the monitors. I was stunned by the obvious – these monitors had been in use, there in Ghana, for more than a decade.  This fact is confirmed in the film itself, by one of the police commissioners, who tells Anane that these CRT monitors had been sent for recycling at least 20 years ago. The companies sold them for export,and the importer who shipped them to Ghana, are no longer even in business.

This means that these CRT monitors have been in Ghana for at least this same period of time, and over 20 years they have been used and repaired over and over again until they finally end up in the dump at Agbogbloshie. Therefore, the best thing Mr. Michael Anane could have done was to investigate how these monitors get to the dump site,and which African consumer had brought them there? Who was the last user? Just using the asset tags on these monitors to determine their first owners is not enough.

After Mr. Michael Anane’s unsuccessful attempt to find any good explanations or answers to his questions about the CRT scrap plastic covers, the film takes us on a journey to uncover an “international illegal recycling trade”. It is alleged that these companies have sold tons of “e-waste” to developing countries in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world. The main reason they are involved in this illegal trade, the film claims, is for fast money- getting paid twice. First by the government or individuals to recycle these used electronics, and second by the importers from Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. However, the film is again silent on the African persons and African companies that they claim import “e-waste” in order to dump them in sites such as Agbogbloshie. Once again, by failing to ask questions of Africans (like Mr. Benson), the documentary misses another very important part of the chain. Why not ask the Africans who are allegedly bringing “e-waste” to places like Agbogbloshie? It is more than a disappointment that the film is silent on this very important segment. The film tells us of the economic benefit to the EU recyclers but fails to show any economic benefit to the third world importers who pay for the materials, pay for the transport, pay for the labor and pay for the customs duties to participate in this allegedly “illegal scheme”. We need an explanation of why the African buyers would waste all their own money to avoid EU recycling costs.  If they had looked for that answer, they might have met some interesting people, and gotten a better idea of what the City of Accra is like.

  1. Place

The film also claims that container loads of “e-waste” is shipped via numerous ports throughout the EU and suggested one sure way to stop this illegal trade.

The suggestion? Test every used electronic to be shipped to make sure that these items do not head straight to dump sites in Africa. Well, the film crew witnessed such a test being done in Germany. The film shows customs officers in a ship yard in Hamburg. Just as suggested, a ship container full of used large screen CRT TVs  was opened and all of these TVs were tested. Based on what this film has said from the start, one would assume in the best circumstances that most of these CRT TVs would be found not working or unrepairable.

The result? 100% and I mean all of the CRT TVs in the container were fully functional.  So you see, no proof so far that used electronics shipped to Africa are “e-waste”.  The film also shows an African electronics buyer in Hong Kong who clearly states that all of the used electronics they buy from Hong Kong are 95% good working items and that anything less than that is unacceptable. A very well respected investigative journalist in Ghana, Mr. Anas also confirms in the video that 95% of the imported used electronics are reused. So where does the “e-waste” imported from Europe and the US to be dumped in Africa go? I’m not sure but I’m very sure that this film does not show any hard evidence that the next container load of used electronics bound for Africa will be delivered straight to dump sites in Lagos, Dahome, Lome or Accra. 

And finally, the film omits any mention of the UN-funded 2010 study of 279 sea containers – which were seized in Lagos and Accra and tested by Swiss and African independent researchers.  That study found 91% reuse.  A better usage rate than brand new product after electrostatic discharge, shipping damage, and warranty returns.

  1. Motive

One of the panelists answering questions after the showing this evening also made a very disturbing statement that I think uncovers a lot in this “e-waste” debate. He said “Our resources (precious metals) disappear in these primitive recycling areas. These people are keeping our metals and we need to stop them.”

My response is, why not let Africans have the metal? Why shouldn’t the developing world keep what the rest of the world mined from our land in the first place? After all most of the copper, gold, and diamond mines are in the developing world. This statement tempts me to think that this struggle could also be for  natural resources and not some “good Samaritan” gesture towards poor Africans.

Growing up in Ghana as a young man I was very fascinated by electronic gadgets and their magic. So I spent a lot of time learning to fix used electronics. As a result I have met so many respected repair guys or “Geeks of Color” if you wish. These are the people who prolong the life span of some of the computers, cell phone, TVs etc that you throw away. Without these guys, so many household, schools, businesses in Africa will lack basic gadgets like computers, TVs, and cell phones for everyday life. The average annual household income in Ghana is $1,327, yet most Africans have facebook accounts and cell phones. With this income level, very few Ghanaians are able to afford brand new electronics. How did we achieve higher rates of electronic use than the USA had in the 1990s?  It’s not thanks to the non-profits, which make millions selling images of poor African and Asian recyclers.  We are connected to the world thanks to imported used electronics and the Tinkerers, Fixers, Technicians, Nerds and Geeks of Color who finance the trade. Thanks to the mysteriously missing African businesses, 95% of Ghanaians can afford to buy these “magic” gadgets that our lives have come to depend on.  With the widely available repair services, these families (including mine) are able to afford and maintain these electronics for a very long time. These are the people whose voices are not heard in this film and many others circulating in the western media.

I’ve waited for a long time to see this corrected but I’ve realized that its time Africa starts telling its own story rather than wait for someone else to do it for us.