A Better Flow

Export of e-waste

Despite the fact that EU law bans the trade of waste and most states have signed the United Nation´s Basel Convention of 1992, 75 % of hazardous electronic waste disappears from within the EU – and an even greater percentage leaves the US, who has not signed this convention – and makes it´s way to major dumpsites in poor countries every year, mainly in Asia and Africa.

Agbogbloshie in Accra, the capital of Ghana, has become a devastating example of these digital dumping grounds for Western electronics and other types of waste. This area was prepared to be a public space for the citizens of Accra during the 1990´s. However, conflicts in northern parts of the country in 1996 led to a flow of people seeking refuge in the capital. Agbogbloshie was provided as a temporary place of refuge for these people, but as time went by, the settlement turned into a slum for as many as 40 000 people. To this community, tonnes of e-waste arrive from close by harbors every day, and adults and children are breaking apart and burning the electronic equipment to get access to the valuable parts they contain. In this process, an extremely high level of toxic metals are released, polluting the soil, water, air and health of the dwellers of this community, making it one of the most polluted places in the world – locally known as “Sodom and Gomorrah. After being hidden for too long, local and global activists are now raising their voices to fill in the loopholes that allow our e-waste to pollute other people´s backyard, and make producers responsible for the whole lifecycle of their products.

In Ghana, environmental journalist Mike Anane
In Ghana, environmental journalist Mike Anane.

In Ghana, environmental journalist Mike Anane has made stopping the dumping of e-waste one of his life campaigns. He has uncovered that most of the containers arriving in Ghana are full of broken electronics disguised as second hand donations. However, as countries like Ghana do not have the mechanisms to repair or recycle these items, they end up at dumpsites like the one at Agbogbloshie. By taking pictures of country labels on these electronics and speaking out about this injustice, Anane is hoping for a change of practice and a stronger legislation in the countries shipping their waste to countries with weak regulations and law enforcement.

The case of Agbogbloshie

A range of local and global actors is responding to the efforts of people like Anane, demanding that responsibility is taken both by Western governments and producers of electronics. The Basel Action Network, based in the US, is educating consumers and governments on better practices for discarding used electronics, and is working for the US to sign the Basel Convention, as a step towards the end of the trade of waste. Through the campaign “Greener Electronics”, Greenpeace is trying to make producers of electronic devices take full responsibility of the whole lifecycle of their products, by developing designs that last longer, making repairs more profitable than replacing a whole device, and providing a system of taking back and safely recycling what they produce, instead of letting the price be paid by governments, communities and people in other countries. In Accra, City Waste Recycling is providing an alternative way of safely dismantling the e-waste, saving the health of the scrap dealers as well as the environment, while ensuring payments to the scrap dealers largely dependent on the income from the otherwise destructive practices. Numerous other groups, activists and consumers around the globe are putting similar pressure on governments, producers and designers.

The flow of electronic waste has succeeded to avoid the existing laws and regulations, but persistent actors in different corners of the world are now standing up against this injustice. A law of ecocide would bind these efforts together and more effectively force those responsible to change to a practice that puts the social and ecological concerns at the top of their agenda, by following the principle of first do no harm.

Initiatives, links and video clips:

The Basel Convention
The Basel Action Network
Mike Anane
City Waste Recycling
Greenpeace – “Greener Electronics”
For viewers in Norway – “Second Hand Land”