Poisoning the poor – Electronic Waste in Ghana

Feature Story - 2008-08-13
Greenpeace has discovered high tech toxic trash (e-waste) causing horrendous pollution in Ghana.

Young boys breathe in toxic chemicals from burning e-waste to reclaim copper wiring

Our analysis of samples taken from two e-waste scrap yards in Ghana has revealed severe contamination with hazardous chemicals.

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.

Much of this e-waste gets dumped in developing countries.

How does it get there?

We uncovered evidence that e-waste is being exported, often illegally, to Ghana (as well as China, India and the Philippines) from Europe and the US.

Containers filled with old computers and TVs – from brands including Philips, Canon, Dell, Microsoft, Nokia, Siemens and Sony – arrive in Ghana from Germany, South 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.

Children hurt by e-waste

In Ghana's e-waste scrap yards, unprotected workers, many of them children, dismantle computers and TVs in search of metals that can be sold. The remaining plastic, cables and casing are either burnt or simply dumped:

Many samples contained toxic metals including lead and chemicals linked to cancer and fertility problems.

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."

Electronic waste in China

Mainland China has tried to prevent this toxic trade by banning the import of e-waste in 2000.

But Greenpeace has discovered that the laws are not working; e-waste is still arriving in Guiyu of Guangdong province, the main centre of e-waste scrapping in China.

In June, Greenpeace activists intercepted a US container of e-waste in Hong Kong.The cargo of illegal e-waste was bound for Sanshui in Mainland China.

This is only the tip of an enormous e-waste mountain, regularly and illegally entering mainland China due to loopholes in Hong Kong's legislation.

According to Hong Kong's Waste Disposal Ordinance, only batteries and cathode ray tubes are banned from import, but there is no clear legislation to guard against other electronic waste and their by-products entering Hong Kong ports.

Irresponsible e-waste traders exploit this loophole and the island has become a transit point for e-waste destined for Mainland China as well as other developing countries.

What's the solution?

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 cooperating but Philips and Sharp stand out for refusing to accept that they are responsible for recycling their old products.

Take Action

You can keep the pressure up by writing to the CEO's of the top computer firms to challenge them to produce a greener computer.

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