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Hard Work

Marco Malusà explores the hidden perils of a district of Accra suffering from electronic waste.

What happens to discarded smartphones? Where do computers, fridges and washing machines go to die? In a world where demographic and technological forces conspire to let ever-growing amounts of unserviceable electric and electronic devices accumulate, addressing questions like these has become of paramount importance. What challenges and opportunities await us in this often-neglected, yet fundamental sector of the global economy?

Where there’s Muck, there’s Brass
In theory, e-waste processing can be a profitable enterprise. Circuits and wires contain valuable metals — copper among them — that can be sold off as scrap parts or used to produce new devices. Similarly, traces of precious elements, including gold, can be found inside hardware components. Their extraction, however, comes with a hefty price tag: unless performed in a safe and controlled environment, it can have disastrous human and environmental consequences.

Sodom and Gomorrah
Few places on Earth embody the costs of unregulated e-waste processing so acutely as Agbogbloshie, a district of the city of Accra, Ghana and one of the largest e-waste dumping sites in the whole of West Africa. Little remains today of the lush wetland ecosystem that once thrived here: the water of the Korle lagoon is now covered by a thick, viscous layer of nauseating slime; the skeletons of partly burned electronic devices dot the landscape as far as the eye can see, and the air is choked with the intoxicating fumes of burning plastic.

Estimates point to approximately 40,000 inhabitants living on site, but it is hard to find reliable sources due to the informal nature of the settlement and the precariousness of the occupation. Effectively a city within a city, Agbogbloshie lacks much of the infrastructure other Accrans enjoy. Instead, a complex web of social and professional relations has been woven in place to accommodate for the informality of labour, thereby making up for the unreliability of external institutions and catering to the idiosyncratic needs of the residents.

Labour in Agbogbloshie is rigidly-divided along age and gender lines. Teenage boys and young men contribute by stripping open sheathed cables — often with their bare hands, or by burning the foam packaging — to expose the metal core. Women are tasked with domestic work, food supply and other duties like the ‘cooking’ of circuit boards to obtain the precious metals mounted within. Children, when not in school or playing in the nearby field, are called on to collect pieces of metal buried in the ground with the help of makeshift metal detectors.
Life expectancy in Agbogbloshie is abysmally low due a combination of physical injuries, fire hazards and the unusually high risk of contracting lethal diseases. The latter results from cramped conditions, limited access to infrastructure and the inhalation of toxic fumes, all of which contribute to respiratory diseases and cancer.

The Way We Live Now
One might be tempted to ask: why would anyone choose to live in — let alone migrate to — such a toxic place? The answer, however, is simple: the need for money and employment. Many workers come from impoverished regions in the north and only plan to stay in Agbogbloshie for a short while. To them, the dump-site represents a profitable opportunity to accumulate wealth and finance their future endeavours.

It is perhaps easy to abstract away from the hardships of life in Agbogbloshie and, however empathetically, label its workers as the unknowing victims of a heinous system. Nevertheless, if one truly is to acknowledge their agency, it is imperative that one see them for who they are: workers supplying labour to a profitable market, albeit an unregulated and life-threatening one. It is through committed recognition of the existence of such a market that Agbogbloshie’s inhumane conditions can be improved in a concrete way. More consistent enforcement of the already-existing labour and environmental laws, together with the drafting of more stringent ones, would be steps in this direction. After all, if handled properly, e-waste management in a world of ever-increasing demand for technology can clearly play a major role in the development of a fairer and more circular economy. One where the horrors of Agbogbloshie are finally a thing of the past.

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