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Welcome to Hell: Photographer documents Africa’s e-waste nightmare

It used to be wetlands, a recreation zone. Today the locals call it Sodom and Gomorrah.

Slag heaps of rusting electronics, old refrigerators and monitors are scattered everywhere in Agbogbloshie, a dumping ground in Ghana for electronic waste from the rest of the world. On the banks of a polluted river, smoking heaps of burning junk spew bilious, black fumes into the sky. To breathe is to cede years of your life.

The residents of Agbogbloshie are well aware of the poisons in the used electronics they scavenge. But for them, scavenging is the only way to make a buck.

“What you do to get money is what kills you,” one resident said recently. A translator went on to explain, “He knows that, yeah, I’m going to die from this someday. What can I do?”

Another explained the problem in broken English: “We are crying for work, suffering for work. How to eat is hard. There is no job enough, that’s why we come to south. And there is no job to the south. Only this.”

'What you do to get money is what kills you.'

- Idris Zakarias, a 20-year-old resident of Agbogbloshie

Kevin McElvaney, a 26-year-old business administrator from Germany, recently went to Agbogbloshie to document its ecotech disaster. His portraits show the people working there, mainly kids between 7 and 25, struggling to make a living.

“Before you enter the burning fields of Agbogbloshie, you will recognize a huge market. On one side you can buy cheap local fruits and vegetables and on the other side you will see loads of manufacturers and scrap dealers. Go to these scrap dealers and you will see men sitting on broken TVs smashing their hammers and simple tools against any kind of car parts, machines and electronic devices,” he wrote recently on his blog.

Whose trash is it, anyway?
Over the course of four days, McElvaney met hundreds of young boys and girls, most from the northern part of the country, who came south to burn cables and extract the copper from them. It can be sold on the market for pennies. Monitors can be disassembled to extract bits of precious metals; electronic parts can be removed from gadgets and sold – but at a terrible cost to the human body.

“Injuries like sears, untreated wounds, lung problems, eye and back damages go side by side with chronic nausea, anorexia, heavy headaches,” he wrote.

And where does the trash come from? Despite efforts to police itself, the U.S. contributes as much to the problem as anyone, experts say.

“Much of the incoming material comes from the U.K., but a lot comes from the U.S.,” Jim Puckett, an activist with the non-profit watchdog group Basel Action Network and former toxics director for Greenpeace International, told FoxNews.com by email.

“Last time I was in (nearby) Accra there was a lot of used electronic equipment from the U.S. government arriving there.… When after some time the computers do not sell in the shops, young boys with carts come by and pick them up and take them to the Agbogbloshie wetland/slum area to burn.”

The Basel Convention, organized by the U.N. and adopted in 1989 in Basel, Switzerland, aims to prevent the trade and movement of hazardous electronic wastes. To date, 180 countries and the European Union have signed on to the treaty.

The U.S. signed the treaty in 1990, but Congress never ratified it.

According to State Department policy, shipping electronics for repair, refurbishment or remanufacturing “does not constitute movement of waste, and thus is not impacted by the Convention or its procedures.” In addition, it says, the Convention lacks authority to enforce its own policy.

How to recycle safely

Consumers and companies looking to safely e-cycle used electronics can turn to the e-Stewards program from the Basel Action Network, which certifies programs that responsibly recycle and reuse used electronics. Learn more

A number of U.S. businesses have sprung up that export e-waste to other countries -- the repair and remanufacturing the State Department mentions. Good Point Recycling, for example, processes 13 million pounds of electronics annually. Robin Ingenthron, the founder of the company, told FoxNews.com the Basel Convention and overeager activists have led to short-sighted policy. California recently shredded $100 million worth of reusable gear, rather than export it as “e-waste,” he said.

“As someone who lived in Africa for two and a half years,” Ingenthron said, “if you just go to World Bank statistics, Lagos (in Nigeria) had 6.9 million households with televisions in 2007. So what do you expect to see in Lagos dumps?”

And the photos from Agbogbloshie?

“The photos show stuff that’s been there for 15 years,” he said.

Quantifying the problem
Rather than the Basel Convention, the U.S. relies upon the electronics industry to police itself, through guidelines such as the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship, a 2011 policy document from the EPA. (The EPA did not respond to FoxNews.com questions in time for this article.) It offers recommendations, not regulations.

As a result, activists say, the U.S. is essentially blind to the problem. We have no way to quantify the e-waste we export.

“When a nation ratifies the Basel Convention, they are required to monitor their export of hazardous waste,” said Sarah Westervelt, stewardship policy director with Basel Action Network. “We are not monitoring our export of this particular hazardous waste. We literally are not quantifying it.

“If we were to ratify the convention, we would be required to measure so we could quantify.”

The U.S. recently set out to do that. In December, the National Center for Electronics Recycling, working with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and funded by the EPA, released a report titled “Quantitative Characterization of Domestic and Transboundary Flows of Used Electronics,” which sought to measure the flow of waste from the U.S.

“We really don’t have a good handle on what exactly … is getting exported every year,” Jason Linnell, executive director of NCER and the report’s author, told FoxNews.com. “We needed to find a good way to get more data about what is actually going out of the country and set up a way to measure things going forward.”

The report found that 66 percent of e-waste in the U.S. is collected, but just 8.5 percent of it is exported as whole products. This represents the low end of what’s being exported, Linnell acknowledged, since the analysis relied on self-reports from the industry. Still, he thinks there has been progress.

Over the last 15 years, he said, “I tend to think the industry has come a long way. Blatant exporting … that’s harder to do now than it ever was.”

But Westervelt blasted the report and its methodology, saying it’s pointless to rely on the industry to report its own exports.

“Unfortunately the report is incredibly flawed,” she said. “When they have this voluntary survey that asks, ‘are you exporting to Africa,’ you’re not going to be getting reliable response.”

No end in sight
Meanwhile the volume of e-waste remains incredibly high. According to EPA estimates, 1.79 million tons were trashed in 2010 -- not including “TV peripherals” like VCRs, DVD players and so on.

And that number has likely soared, thanks to the explosion in mobile phones. But because the U.S. is the only developed country that hasn’t ratified the Basel Convention, it is in a unique position: It’s perfectly legal to load up a container ship with hazardous junk and sell it to the highest bidder. Once the container ship enters international water, though, it falls under the umbrella of international law -- where it’s illegal for about 143 developing countries to accept it. Many do anyway: e-waste is a lucrative business, after all.

“Companies are making money off this on both ends. But they’re causing these irreparable long-term impacts,” Westervelt said.

Ingenthron pointed out that Basel Action Network is one of those companies making money -- its e-Stewards program certifies recyclers and exporters, and charges them a hefty fee to be listed in its database, he alleged.

“They’re charging hundreds of thousands to certify companies for export,” he said. “None of that money goes to Africa.

“And that’s our objection to these photos. Its poverty porn.”

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.