Poisoning the poor – Electronic Waste in Ghana

Feature story - August 4, 2008
The latest place where we have discovered high tech toxic trash causing horrendous pollution is in Ghana. Our analysis of samples taken from two electronic waste (e-waste) scrap yards in Ghana has revealed severe contamination with hazardous chemicals.

Boys burning electronic cables and other electrical components in order to melt off the plastic and reclaim the copper wiring. This burning in small fires releases toxic chemicals into the environment.

The ever-growing demand for the latest fashionable mobile phone, flat screen TV or super-fast computer creates ever larger amounts of obsolete electronics that are often laden with toxic chemicals like lead, mercury and brominated flame retardants.

Rather than being safely recycled, much of this e-waste gets dumped in developing countries. Previously, we have exposed pollution from e-waste scrap yards in China and India. Nigeria has also been identified as a dumping ground for old electronics.

During our investigation into the shady e-waste trade, we uncovered evidence that e-waste is being exported, often illegally, to Ghana from Europe and the US. We visited Ghana to investigate workplace contamination from e-waste recycling and disposal in the country.

In the yards, unprotected workers, many of them children, dismantle computers and TVs with little more then stones in search of metals that can be sold. The remaining plastic, cables and casing is either burnt or simply dumped:

Some of the samples contained toxic metals including lead in quantities as much as one hundred times above background levels. Other chemicals such as phthalates, some of which are known to interfere with sexual reproduction, were found in most of the samples tested.  One sample also contained a high level of chlorinated dioxins, known to promote cancer.

Dr. Kevin Bridgen, from our science unit, has visited scrap yards in China, India and Ghana: "Many of the chemicals released are highly toxic, some may affect children's developing reproductive systems, while others can affect brain development and the nervous system.  In Ghana, China and India, workers, many of them children, may be substantially exposed to these hazardous chemicals."

How does it get to Ghana?

Containers filled with old and often broken computers, monitors and TVs - from brands including Philips, Canon, Dell, Microsoft, Nokia, Siemens and Sony - arrive in Ghana from Germany, Korea, Switzerland and the Netherlands under the false label of "second-hand goods". Exporting e-waste from Europe is illegal but exporting old electronics for 'reuse' allows unscrupulous traders to profit from dumping old electronics in Ghana.

The majority of the containers' contents end up in Ghana's scrap yards to be crushed and burned by unprotected workers. Some traders report that to get a shipping container with a few working computers they must accept broken junk like old screens in the same container from exporters in developed countries.

What's the solution?

While working computers and mobile phones can have a new lease of life in some African countries, they create pollution when thrown away due to the high levels of toxic chemicals they contain. This is why we are pressuring the biggest electronic companies to phase out toxic chemicals and introduce global recycling schemes. Both of these steps are vital to tackle the growing tide of toxic e-waste.

Some companies are making progress towards taking responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products. However, Philips and Sharp stand out for refusing to accept that they are responsible for recycling their old products. The stance of these powerful multinationals is ensuring there will always be a digital divide that they prefer remains hidden, a dangerous divide with unprotected workers in developing countries left with the toxic legacy.

Behind the story

Mid-2008 a Greenpeace team including campaigner Kim Schoppink and photographer Kate Davison went to Ghana to document and gather evidence of what really happens to our electronic waste.

View the story

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