There have been many reports about the illegal exportation of electronic waste from Europe to Ghana in the past. Although all European countries signed the Basel Convention, which bans the export of hazardous waste (which e-waste always is) to non-OECD-countries, new, functional, and repairable devices are legally being shipped to India, China, Nigeria, or Ghana. However, it seems infeasible for customs authorities to effectively police prohibited waste shipments versus permitted exports. As a consequence, e-waste from Germany and other Western countries ends up in the illegal dump site of Giftige Geschäfte – Der Elektromüll-Skandal“ and „Die GPS-Jagd – Wo landet mein Schrottfernseher“ recently raised a lot of attention about this. We met Mike Anane, environmental activist and journalist in Accra, at a photo exhibition by Kevin McElvaney and talked with him about the social impacts, manufacturer responsibility, and why we see him in every single documentary on this subject.In Germany, two documentaries on this, „
Faire Computer: For how long have you been observing the situation in Agbogbloshie?
Mike Anane: For the past 11 years. That was when I first saw the trucks with e-waste coming from the port to Agbogbloshie. Agbogbloshie happens to be a place I’m familiar with. I have been hanging around the area when it was a lush, green, beautiful wetland with lots of birds and some wildlife, and the river and the lagoon that run through the dump site had so much fish. The fishermen, the people in the communities depended on these rivers for their livelihood. Agbogbloshie used to be an amazing, beautiful wetland, a Garden of Eden. A wetland performs enormous environmental functions. When the water from the city goes to the sea, it goes through the wetland and gets filtered. Fish from the sea come and make babies. Wetlands are so important to every country, to nature, and to mankind.
But now, the river and the lagoon are both dead: no fish, no organisms, nothing. The river and the lagoon both end up in the sea, and when the fishermen at the seaside throw their net, hoping to catch some fish, they get computers, television sets, and fridges. Their poisons spill into the sea every single day. The part where the lagoon and the river enter the sea is black and so toxic you can smell it almost like petroleum. And you can see the computers and the refrigerators along the beach. So for me Agbogbloshie, which was a green Garden of Eden, is now paradise lost.
What kind of trend do you see with the pollution in Agbogbloshie? Are things still getting worse?
It is increasing. Despite all the films and media attention, absolutely nothing has changed. If there is anything that has changed, it is awareness. From 11 years ago up until quite recently, not many people knew about the e-waste situation. Since then, awareness has been created – in places I go to, people ask questions and seem to have watched some films and all that. But this awareness is yet to result in action. Action as in the reduction of the amount of e-waste that is being shipped illegally to Ghana and dumped.
During Christmas, when people buy gifts, they buy a new flat screen TV and a cell phone. The question is, what happens to these old phones, television sets that have been discarded by people who bought the gifts. They add on to the pile and they are shipped to Ghana. So during Christmas the volume of e-waste that is dumped in Ghana increases. Every single month the country receives between 500 and 600 container loads of e-waste from all of the industrialised countries. In Christmas time, it goes up to 800 to about 1000 container loads.
In one of the documentaries that was on TV recently, you were shown talking to authorities in the UK. What do you think about the attitude towards the problem of e-waste? Are they taking it seriously enough in the UK, Germany, or Europe?
When you speak with some of the authorities in the countries that I went to they sound as if they are very much concerned. But for me this concern should come along with a reduction in the e-waste that I see being sent to Ghana. That has not been the case. There has been a lot of talk and promises, and of course sometimes some policies have been made. But these things have not resulted in the reduction of the e-waste that I expect, and also that developing country citizens expect.
What would you recommend for us Europeans to do, individually and on the political level?
Looking at the source of the e-waste that is being shipped, one would expect the source countries to better fulfil their responsibilities. These countries have signed the Basel Convention that basically prohibits the transboundary movement of hazardous waste, of which e-waste is a part. These countries have to put in place stringent measures to prevent the illegal shipment of e-wast from their ports to other countries. It is criminal in the first place for this e-waste to leave the ports of Germany, Holland, and all these other places. Why can’t the governments of these countries check or control these containers at the ports?
Manufacturers also have a major role. I’m talking about Hewlett Packard, Philips, all these manufacturers of electronics. They should be responsible for their products from cradle to grave, from birth to death. These are the people who manufacture these items. They introduce very toxic components like lead, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, mercury. If you don’t deal with this kind of waste, how could you expect your customers to deal with it?
Manufacturers should also try to remove and phase out heavy metals and other chemicals in the manufacture of TVs and other products. Why are they spreading heavy metals around? Why do they use lead? Isn’t there an alternative the manufacturers can use? We need to put a lot of pressure on the manufacturers to make a change.
Actually, in Germany, the manufacturers are responsible for disposal. There is a system where the consumers bring the waste to collection sites. The problem is that people are selling this waste for a few Euros, and this is the waste that goes to Ghana. So we have a system for manufacturer responsibility, but it still doesn’t work.
That is true. That’s why I said there are a lot of promises on paper, but the reality is different. I still see a lot of e-waste from manufacturers in Germany in Ghana. It means that these manufacturers are not collecting these things. And I’m talking about container loads; within the last five months, the bulk of e-wast that is sent to Ghana has been coming from Germany. In the past it used to be from various countries, Denmark, Holland, the UK, and Germany. Then it came to the point where the majority would come from the UK. The UK is worst in terms of broken items, some rusty, you can tell they were pulled from the ground or somewhere. But now, Germany has overtaken this.
Let’s talk about the situation in Ghana. In one documentary, one could see how containers arrive at the port and sometimes are not checked appropriately. Do you think authorities there also need to take the problem more seriously?
Every government, every country has a responsibility towards its citizens. The government of Ghana can not be absolved from blame. They have the responsibility to ensure that whatever is coming to the country is not hazardous or toxic to the people. So at our borders we should ensure that containers that have hazardous, toxic waste are turned back. But I’m inclined to believe that customs and other authorities at the ports in Ghana are not prepared for the amount and volumes of e-waste that we see. And let us also bear in mind that these containers are not labelled as e-waste when they arrive in Ghana. They are mislabelled as raw materials, household equipment, shoes, tyres, cars. It is very difficult for most developing countries who lack the resources to properly check these things.
One thing that I found intriguing to learn is that Ghana also imports a great deal of functional, used electronic goods. Part of the problem that border authorities face is that it can be hard to distinguish between waste and products that are still functional. What is the economic significance of these goods?
Definitely, there are people who, over the years, bought and sold second-hand, functioning equipment. But in recent times, if you’re a poor person and go to these shops and buy what you think might be a second-hand TV or computer, the shops will tell you: We sell these things untested. It is a lottery. They tell you it’s untested, that’s why the price is not so high. If you buy an untested flat screen, take it home, switch it on, and it doesn’t work, you’re saddled with the problem of having to throw it away.
These buyers and sellers are selling untested goods because increasingly they’re having to deal with devices from Europe that just don’t work. In the past they had somebody who tried to fix it, but they realized that they are not able to fix everything, and they are realizing that they have to pay more for the repairers who try to do it. So they are passing that cost on to the consumers now, who are faced with a choice of having to throw these things away or to dump them somewhere.
Would you say there is more harm or more good being done by importing these functional goods?
When I look at these things, I would not call it importation. For me the bottom line is dumping, because from all of these containers that come, only about 20% are functional, and 80% are junk, garbage. Somebody wants to get rid of these things from Europe, from America or somewhere, and it must go somewhere. The impact for me is almost negligible in terms of what people might lose, because these items are garbage anyway. They have to be disposed of or properly recycled in the countries that are sending them. In any case, I think that it is wrong for another country to send hazardous waste, or any waste for that matter, to another country. It just doesn’t work that way. The bottom line is: It is criminal. It should not happen.
What happens to the domestic e-waste from Ghana, to the untested items that don’t work? Does it go to the same place?
Definitely. If you buy one of the 20% of functional items, they’re still used items and will have a very short life span, maybe two or six months. So what happens when they break? People just put them on the road side. They don’t know where to take them.
The issue is even worse. If somebody goes to buy untested TVs to sell them and about ten of them don’t work he also puts them outside. There is a life span to electronics. When they are used domestically in Ghana and break, they also end up in the dumpsites.
What is the public attitude towards e-waste? Is the problem well known to the population in Ghana?
In most developing countries, knowledge about issues involving science, the environment, physics, or biology does not go very deep. People are embroiled in how to make money and get the meal for the day. Of course, a lot of Ghananese see the waste every now and then, but more and more people are now becoming aware of the toxicity, the physics and chemistry behind these things. Still, most people are unaware of them. They see the waste everywhere, on every single street you find waste. In shops, on the streets, everywhere.
I collect these pieces of e-waste that still have asset tags on them. When you look at the asset tag, the interesting thing is that most of these things come from high-profile institutions in Europe, institutions that should know about the toxicity of the waste and should not send it. I have e-waste from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. I have some from the Dutch Ministry of the Environment, and from hospitals and banks in Germany, the UK. They should know about the toxicity.
Generally, awareness in Ghana is not that high when people see it. They know there is waste from Europe. They even have a derogatory name for it. They call it “The white men’s garbage.” But they don’t know about the toxic components. But gradually we’re educating people.
How do you work in Ghana? Do you work on your own, or do you have an organisation that supports you?
I have a team that helps me. I trained them. When I’m not available, they can go to the port or other places. Sometimes I want to travel with other people. They’re a few people that assist in my movement.
Are there other groups working on the same issues?
No, I don’t think so. You know, this is a specialized area that involves a lot of toxic smoke going into your face every now and then when you go to a dump site. It’s not an area that most people are very happy to go, not a kind of work you want to do. In Ghana I cannot put on a nice shirt and look around the dump site. You have to look dirty, and people are not happy to do all these things.
There are many documentaries about e-waste in Ghana, and you seem to be in every one of them.
That is true, because I happen to be the first person to expose this. When I first saw how serious the problem was, I took local Ghanaean journalists to the site. Then I started to work with foreign journalists to spread the issue. Of course I have become an expert in the area. Not many people are interested in going down. Sometimes you have to do it undercover to get information and it becomes dangerous. Sometimes you are walking around in the dark. No normal people want to do this (laughs).
How many people would you estimate work in Agbogbloshie, and what drives them there?
Agbogbloshie has about 40,000 people living in an adjacent community known as Sodom and Gomorrah. I can count thousands of children aged five to 17 who come to work there every day. These children come to dismantle the e-waste with their little fingers. Some also smash them on the ground. These people are usually very poor people from the deprived northern region of the country. They come to the city in search of greener pastures, jobs. But there are no jobs. So they end up in these places trying to make a living, because the e-waste is available, it is dumped there. The children find it very interesting because they don’t only find cell phones, computers, and television sets, they find game consoles that children here have used, and they get attracted. The try to play with them… and then they take a hammer – bang! These people are just looking for metals, copper, which they sell to buy food. Some of the children, the younger ones, even give money to their mothers. And some save money to go to school.
It seems to me that if e-waste stopped arriving there, these people would have to find something else to do. What could we do to actually improve their situation, in addition to reducing the dumping of e-waste?
In the past, when we did not have any e-waste arriving in the country, young, poor people were selling water or oranges on the streets. They were doing things that were not hazardous. They were not exposed to huge amounts of lead and all these other things. If e-waste stopped coming, a lot of kids would go back to school, because the access to e-waste is creating truancy. A lot of children rather go to the e-waste dump, see game consoles and play with their friends; they hang out there. They would go back to school. Those who can not go back to school would carry water, oranges or mangoes on their heads, earn a living, because that was what others did before e-waste came in. There are some older ones who can not do these things.
There is a need for the workers in this place to be retrained. Alternative livelihood prospects are important for them. Some farming activity here and there, some sowing, some welding; you know, something that is less hazardous, instead of exposing these people to lead, mercury, and cadmium every single minute. There is so much they can do if the waste stops coming. But conscious efforts would have to be made to retrain them. In all this, there is a need for cooperation between countries in the south and countries here, between Ghana and Germany.
From an environmental perspective, lots of organisations appeal to consumers and say, “Don’t throw away your cell phone every two years! Keep using your devices, repair and upgrade them!” Do you think trying to change consumer behaviour through advocacy is a good strategy?
It is important to create awareness among consumers. Consumerism itself has contributed so much to the piles of e-waste that we see and that ends up in developing countries. It is good to change the attitude, the habits of the consumers. Consumers should know that when they don’t necessarily need this new gadget, they really don’t have to go and get it. But the point is: you cannot enforce this. It is only an appeal. If they have the money and want to get the latest gadget, you can’t stop them.
Although such a change in attitude could play a role in reducing these piles of e-waste, I think the majority of the problem solving would rest with manufacturers. It is the manufacturers who are causing rapid, deliberate and blunt obsolescence. It is the manufacturers who make it possible that if you buy an iPhone today, in two years’ time it is dead, and you have to get another one. It is deliberate. In the past, if you bought a cell phone, it would work for a hundred years, even if you dropped it. But now you buy these Android phones, you just drop them and the screen cracks.
So it is consumers who should appeal to manufacturers instead?
Definitely. Citizens as a whole should join the wagon. They are welcome on board. They should pressurise the manufacturers, in fact, not appeal to them. They should pressurise them to collect their products when they get to their end of life. They should pressurise them to remove the toxic components, because in the end it’s these consumers who are being hurt. A lot of consumers are being sickened by e-wast, because people are not aware of the toxicity of these things. I know people who collect cell phones. When they used them over the years, they put them in drawers in the bedroom, and they also expose themselves to heavy metals.
What I would like to say is that we’re all in this together. We are talking about the destruction of air quality. The smoke goes everywhere. We breathe the same air, no matter whether you are in Europe or in Ghana. The water bodies that have been destroyed and filled with e-waste all end up in the sea, and that is part of a global commons. We all use it, no matter where we are. So what we should know is that what goes around would definitely come around. We all are in the boat and should work together to find solutions to the e-waste menace. Posterity would not forgive us if we don’t play a role in solving this e-waste crisis now. Our children and children’s children are definitely going to blame us if we keep quiet and fold our arms.