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Europe's electronic waste ends up at this toxic landfill in Ghana

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This is one of Africa’s biggest electronic waste scrapyards and it's filled with the remnants of Europe's discarded electronic devices.

The site, near Ghana’s capital Accra, receives millions of tonnes each year: from mobile phones to refrigerators and mp3 players to monitors.

Thousands of people scratch a living here by burning the e-trash to extract iron, brass and other valuable metals.

They ensure dire conditions to earn $2-3 a day at Agbogbloshie, which is considered one of the world's most polluted sites.

Several studies have shown the burning of waste exposes them to toxins that can cause heart disease, strokes and lung cancer.

'Cars loaded up with electronic waste'

The export of electronic waste from Europe is illegal under the Basel Convention, but you can get around this by claiming it is reusable.

It arrives in places like Ghana in vehicles from Europe that have been exported for re-use in Africa.

The waste does not come from Europe’s incinerators or landfills, but, more often, from informal collections at recycling centres, on the streets, via the internet or metal scrap dealers.

Often importers are Ghanaian migrants living in Europe and using their connections with the mother country to start small family businesses.

“Often cars are loaded up with electronics and the cars are exported for re-use and the electronic waste comes along for the ride,” said Jim Puckett, Executive Director of Basel Action Network (BAN), an environmental watchdog that, a few months ago, put 314 GPS trackers on e-waste material in Europe, revealing and mapping 11 instances in which items were exported from the UK, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Denmark and Germany.

“This was documented in a recent UN study regarding West Africa. There is some evidence of organised crime involvement but little proof.

“The exports are not caught because our ports can scarcely monitor and inspect massive amounts of containers moving every day. No port wants to slow things down with inspections.

“I would estimate that from Europe, about 80% of the trade that is exported to Africa is illegal in either the importing or exporting state.

“However, the best data is anecdotal. In Ghana, port authorities will tell you that 75% of the goods coming into Ghana are second hand, so legal equipment. As this includes food etc. it’s a rather stunning figure. I have been to the port of Tema and have seen everything opened up.

“There are used cars from the US, used paper and plastic from Europe, used tyres, used electronics, furniture, clothing.

“The idea is that the local market will refurbish this equipment and try to sell it. The electronics go to be sold at little roadside shops or stalls. Some try to fix it. That which cannot be sold goes to Agbogbloshie via pushcarts made from car wheels and platforms.”

The end of life of electronic appliances is a global problem, exacerbated by the ever-faster obsolescence of devices and the difficulties to reach and recycle the major part of these materials.

The EU claims exports for “repair” should be exempt from the waste definitions.

“They have succeeded so far in pushing this into the Basel Guideline on Transboundary Movement of e-waste. BAN has been fighting this idea very hard. So far that idea is in a guideline but the EU is promoting this notion internally: if you claim something is non-waste then it is not illegal”, added Puckett.

The health impact of working at 'one of the world's most polluted sites'

Agbogbloshie is the last recycling opportunity, at the expense of the health of its workers and neighbours.

Recently, a report by BAN and the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), showed how dangerous chemicals, coming from illegal waste, are affecting the entire food chain in Ghana. The study showed high levels of dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls in the eggs sold in markets.

Those trying to scratch a living at Agbogbloshie employ manual dismantling and open-air burning recycling methods to scavenge valuable metals. Several studies showed how these activities expose people working there to lethal substances that could cause, for example, ischemic coronary illness, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute lower respiratory infections in children. Recently, data showed that e-waste workers have high levels of dangerous synthetic compounds in their urine and blood.

Grounds for optimism?

Some projects are starting in Agbogbloshie, mostly funded by western countries (especially Germany), to make the process less dangerous and to give scrap dealers an alternative to the big fires that pollute the entire area

One of such projects is, for example, a recycling centre with automated stripping units that should persuade scrap dealers not to burn cables and provides training courses to use appropriate machines.

“We manage 30% of the electric cables coming in Agbogbloshie. We extract metals in a correct manner, respectful of the environment and of the health of people in Accra” said Kwaku, one of the project operators.

Scrap dealers can even deliver their material to the centre, where it will be processed in an eco-friendly way, and get paid for the value of metals contained in it.

An important project, one of those funded by Germany, but still not enough to stop the ecological catastrophe happening in the area.

“I’ve got pneumonia working here for many years, and I know of several cases of respiratory illnesses,” said Kwaku

“But I keep on because I am an environmentalist and I believe in a different future for this planet.

“We should all think that, to really make a difference.”