Garbage Out, Garbage In: How Europe’s e-waste problem is a burden on Africa

ACCRA, Ghana – Hassan Tampani, a 23-year-old scrap dealer sits just 20 meters away from acidic gusts of smoke fueled by the burning of digital detritus at Agbogbloshie. Over the last decade, Agbogbloshie, the roughly 20-acre scrap yard in the heart of Accra has become a symbol of graveyard for Europe’s e-waste – a serious crisis facing e-waste disposal globally and a threat to the environment.

“Truth is that the rubbish is too much. Sometimes we are not even able to breathe. We can’t do anything about it,” said Hassan, who moved from Tamale in the Northern Region of Ghana to Accra over a decade ago.

Working as a scrap dealer in Ghana can sometimes be a rewarding venture despite its associated health risks. As scrap dealer, one can earn a daily average income of over GHC100 (17USD). This figure is quite high by Ghanaian standards where current daily minimum wage is GH¢ 12.53 (2USD).

Hassan, is among the hundreds of young men and women who travel from the northern part of Ghana to the capital city of Accra in search of jobs each year. He now spends his days sifting through e-waste that finds its way to the dump site, smashing old television sets, refrigerators and air conditioners in search of valuable parts to recover copper.

 He sometimes burns insulated cables although he insists – “that is now the job of the younger guys” at the site as he points in their direction.

Young men at the dump site at Agbobloshie, Accra burning e-waste to recover copper
Young men at the dump site at Agbobloshie, Accra burning e-waste to recover copper.

According to the environmental watchdog organization, the Basel Action Network(BAN), an estimated that 352,474 metric tonnes of electronic waste (an equivalent of 2.5 billion smart phones) is illegally shipped from the EU to developing countries each year. The report noted that African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania were among the countries most targeted by Europe’s e-waste exporters.

The Agbogbloshie dump is as a result of the world’s increasing demand for electronic equipment as consumers continually upgrade their devices and discard older ones. These discarded electronics mainly from Europe and the United States often labeled as second-hand products are delivered in huge containers and end up on the shores of developing countries.

A four-month investigation by Gideon Sarpong based on interviews with dozens of environmental experts, import and export businessmen, government officials and review of environmental reports has revealed that despite the illegality of shipment of  electronic waste from the European Union (EU) to Africa, 64% of the EU’s e-waste end up on the continent each year.

The report shows that several e-waste recycling organisations in the UK have previously been engaged in illegal shipment of e-waste to Africa, where as port officials in Europe generally turn a blind eye to these shipments.

The investigation also shows that the EU’s recent  Guideline on the Transboundary Movement of WEEE led by Germany introduces a “Repairable Loophole which risks undermining gains of the Basel Convention.

It also revealed that harmful refrigerants found in discarded cooling appliances has the capacity to warm the atmosphere thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide, having already accounted for around 10% of global CO2 emissions

EU turns a blind eye to shipment of e-waste to Africa an Impact, impact on climate

Anthony Kemi, a Nigerian based in Florence, Italy is one of the many e-waste exporters based in Europe who collects discarded cooling appliances particularly fridges and ship to parts of Africa.

Despite cargo inspections by port officials in Italy it remains to be seen how this has effectively prevented the export of these discarded electronic appliances.

“I have never had any issue at the Livorno port in shipping discarded fridges to Nigeria,” Anthony disclosed. “As long as I make the requisite payments to the shipping authorities, I am fine.”

E-waste is deemed a hazardous waste by the EU due to toxic parts containing substances such as mercury, lead and flame retardants. The EU’s Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR) forbids the export of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) to non-EU countries; nevertheless, the evidence shows otherwise as 350,000 metric tonnes of e-waste leave the EU to developing countries annually.

Mr. Kofi Agyarko, Director of Renewable Energy and Climate Change at the Energy Commission in Ghana has described actions by the EU as “global hypocrisy.”

“If those things (e-waste) were valuable like gold, diamond that our brothers and sisters are smuggling to Africa, would they close their eyes.”

 “If those things (e-waste) were valuable like gold, diamond that our brothers and sisters are smuggling to Africa, would they close their eyes,” he asked.

Mr. Agyarko also revealed that between 2013 and 2014 when Ghana started confiscating used fridges and air conditioners at its ports, “not less than 1500 kilograms of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were recorded within a year and they all came from Europe.”

“The Europeans see e-waste as a problem because it is a burden on them. So, if you want to engage in the export, they will just close their eyes for you to take them away. After all, if you’re taking out garbage away from my house why should I fight you,” he argued.

Refrigerant gases have the capacity to warm the atmosphere – measured as global warming potential – is thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide, with some being up to 13,850 times more potent.

Industry experts say these harmful refrigerants are still widespread and increasing rapidly due to a global surge in demand for air conditioningsluggish innovation from industry and inadequate legislation around their disposal.

According to Project Drawdown, a nonprofit that analyses climate solutions roughly 90% of refrigerant emissions occur at equipment’s end of life usually taking place in areas like Agbogbloshie and Kariakoo in Tanzania.

“The industry as a whole has had a huge impact on global warming,” says Clare Perry, senior campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a non-profit that investigates and campaigns against environmental abuse.

She says taken together refrigerant emissions have accounted for close to 11% of total warming emissions to date.

Shipment of e-waste to Africa by Recycling plants in the UK

Meanwhile, while Anthony collects his discarded cooling appliances from private households and ships to parts of Africa on a small scale, there is a bigger industrial practice in Europe where corporations and recycling organisations collect e-waste from user-friendly collection centers under the guise of recycling but ship these to Africa.

Environcom, UK’s largest waste collector has been previously accused by the Ghanaian government of shipping discarded fridges to Ghana after Ghana had instituted a ban on all e-waste into the country.

Several other UK government approved e-waste recycling organisations including; Bury St Edmunds Household Waste Recycling Site, Ipswich Household Waste Recy-cling Centre, Dawsholm Recycling Centre and Renfrewshire Recycling Centre have all been previously exposed for engaging in the illegal shipment of e-waste to several developing countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania.

According to an investigation by BAN, these drop-off locations that are designed to aid consumers find a proper WEEE recycler were rather found to be shipping e-waste to several African countries. This was revealed with the aid of GPS trackers hidden in e-waste items presented for recycling.

“They go round to collect money to destroy or recycle these appliances but rather and re-package and send them to Ghana for money,” said Mr. Agyarko, Director of Renewable Energy at Ghana’s Energy Commission.

“Most of the cooling appliances that are to be disposed of are laden with CFCs and these organisations find it appropriate to dump them on the shores of Ghana and Africa. So that we will suffer from the environmental problems from the CFCs and die,” he added.

A 2016 study focused on the impact of e-waste on scrap dealers and residents at Agbogbloshie found a significant increase blood lead levels among both e-waste and non-e-waste workers at the site.

The report also called for an “increase in public awareness about the effects of exposure to lead from e-waste recycling.”

Meanwhile, Chris Smith, the National Intelligence Manager at UK’s Environment Agency has admitted that, the BAN investigation enabled the Agency to “quickly and efficiently close down four illegal waste operators who exported the electrical waste.”

The United Kingdom was found to be the most egregious violator of illegal shipments of hazardous consumer electronic scrap to vulnerable populations like Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania according to the report.

Other countries that also allowed such e-waste exports to developing countries include: Germany, Italy, Ireland, Poland, and Spain.

Jim Puckett, Executive Director of BAN, said the illegal shipments perpetuated an EU waste management regime “on the backs of the poor and vulnerable”.

“Weaker economies and communities are being exploited by richer one’s who are now intent on pressing for cradle to cradle and waste is food while turning a blind-eye to the fact that ‘recycling’ and ‘re-use’ and now “circular economy” are increasingly being mis-appropriated as green passwords to a global waste circus and horror show,” he explained.

“This flies in the face of EU claims to make continuous efforts to implement a circular economy which can only responsibly exist by eliminating … leakage from the system,” said Mr. Puckett.

Europe Undermines the Basel Convention 

In 1995, the Basel BAN Amendment was introduced by the Basel Convention Parties to prohibit the member states of the OECD, the EU and Liechtenstein from exporting hazardous waste to other countries.

Despite Europe’s previous success in placing the Ban Amendment into binding legislation even before its entry into international legal force, many experts believe that the introduction of a Repairable Loophole in 2019 risks undermining the Basel Convention.

The loophole contained in the Guideline on the Transboundary Movement of WEEE allows anyone to simply claim used electronic waste as ‘repairable’ and export it completely outside of the rules and obligations of the Basel Convention.

“No importing country would even be asked if it would like to receive container loads of broken e-waste destined for ‘repair’” says Jim Puckett.

The Guideline will guide unscrupulous traders to export all manner of hazardous broken or untested consumer electronics outside of the control procedures of the Basel Convention.

In a May, 2019 statement by Jim Puckett, he argued that “the Guideline will guide unscrupulous traders to export all manner of hazardous broken or untested consumer electronics outside of the control procedures of the Basel Convention simply by making a claim of “export for repair.”

“One can but fear that these efforts led by Germany, are a harbinger of Europe renouncing its leadership role in human rights and the environment.”

Germany’s Basel Convention representative at the Federal Environment Agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ghana effort to deal with e-waste

So far in Ghana, lawmakers have introduced the Electronic Waste Control and Management law which aims to prevent Ghana from being used as a dumping ground for e-waste.

Ghana is by far one of the countries in the world most targeted and impacted by EU and US e-waste exporters.

The law introduced in 2016 has successfully reduced the importation of used cooling appliances to a minimum of 2 percent according to an Energy Commission survey. This was also confirmed by the Executive Secretary of the Importers and Exporters Association of Ghana, Samson Asaki Awingobit who also admitted that, the ban on used cooling appliances have significantly affected the livelihoods of importers.

“People who were into importation of second-hand fridges have all lost their jobs,” he disclosed.

Although the influx of used cooling appliances has significantly reduced across Ghana’s borders, the situation is still “not satisfactory,” according to the Energy Commission.

“Before we began the war, the used appliances market controlled over 80 percent market share. Until we hit zero, I will not say we have won but with 98 percent success, I will say we have made an enviable progress,” says Mr. Agyarko.

Ghana’s e-waste law also created a tax scheme named eco-levy imposed on electric and electronic equipment (EEE) coming into the country. The eco-levy is mainly to support the construction of e-waste recycling plants across the country.

In August 2018, President Akufo-Addo announced the commencement of the construction of a recycling e-waste management facility at Agbogbloshie with funds generated from the eco levy.

Checks at Agbogbloshie as at July, 2021, three years later indicate that work has not commenced.

Member of Parliament for the area, Nii Lante Vanderpuye expressed his disappointment that nothing has been done so far.

“Well, it is sad that this is the case. It was a project that was started with the NDC government, the John Mahama administration in 2016. Down the line five years now, nothing much has been done. I have rather seen the site being used as a dumping place for the Accra landing beach project. They virtually cutting the debris and dump it there,” the MP said.

Agbogbloshie E-Waste Site Demolished, and Way Forward

One month following my interview with Hassan Tampani in July 2021, the government forcefully evicted the over 4000 scrap dealers from the scrap yard at Agbobloshie.

Demolished Agbobloshie in July 2021, credit: Joy News
Demolished Agbobloshie in July 2021, credit: Joy News

Hassan, lost all his property during the eviction due to what he claims to be a “very short government notice of eviction.” With no support and compensation from the state and an alternative source of livelihood, his only option is to rebuild his scrap business at a new site.

 “The minister didn’t inform us that we were part of the eviction. We didn’t know about the eviction until about two days to the removal. He has not paid us anything. The minister is a very wicked man…,”said Hassan.

He added: “the scrap dealers have now contributed to buy a new land at Teacher Mante in the Eastern Region of Ghana.”

Hassan now hopes that a 50-acre land at Teacher Mante obtained at a cost of GHS 1 million cedis ($166,000) will soon be developed so he can restart his scrap business.

There is however a growing concern among some Ghanaians that the open burning of residual unrepairable fractions which led to significant pollution of water bodies and the environment at Agbogbloshie will be repeated at the new site.

Teacher Mante, New site bought by scrap dealers association in Ghana. Credit: Ghanaweb
Teacher Mante, New site bought by scrap dealers association in Ghana. Credit: Ghanaweb

Henry Kokofu, the Executive Director of the Environmental Protection Agency has however insisted that plans are in place to prevent the new site designated for the Scrap Dealers Association from being polluted by e-waste.

For Mr. Agyarko, the solution is a straightforward one and warns of dire consequences if no action is taken. The EU and particularly Britain must do more to, “prevent the export of e-waste into developing countries. The earlier they turn on a new leaf the better for us all.” Otherwise, “this whole talk about Paris agreement- agenda 1.5-degree Celsius temperature reduction becomes a fleeting slogan,” he said.

There are no boundaries in the atmosphere. The pollution doesn’t require visa nor resident permit.

“There are no boundaries in the atmosphere. The pollution doesn’t require visa nor resident permit. So, if you think that you can clean one part of the planet and pollute the other part of the planet and you think that you are living in a clean environment, that is a hoax.”

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Reporting and writing by Gideon Sarpong. Daniel Abugre Anyorigya (Ghana) and Leslie Olonyi (Kenya) contributed to the report.

This article was developed with the support of the Money Trail Project (www.money-trail.org).

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Gideon Sarpong

Gideon Sarpong is a policy analyst and media practitioner with close to a decade of experience in policy, data and investigative journalism. Gideon is currently the Policy and News Director at iWatch Africa. He is an author; a fellow of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), Thomson Reuters Foundation, Commonwealth Youth Program ,Free Press Unlimited and Bloomberg Data for Health Initiative. Gideon is the Ghana Hub Lead of Sustainable Ocean Alliance. He is a 2020/21 Policy Leader Fellow at the European University Institute, School of Trans-national Governance in Florence, Italy and 2020/21 Open Internet For Democracy Leader. Gideon is also currently a Visiting Scholar/Reuters Fellow at the University of Oxford, UK.

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