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Field Notes: Finding greener solutions to toxic e-waste

This week, Lush Times photojournalist Reece Pickering reports on his recent visit to Agbogbloshie, Ghana, where he documented the challenges - and possible solutions - of safely disposing of electronic waste at a site named as one of the most toxic environments in the world. He left having discovered an entrepreneurial spirit and thirst for change alive and kicking.

In recent years I’ve learned to really slow down before taking pictures which document some of the most serious environmental and ethical issues we now face.

Working, often, in remote or hostile environments, I now take a minute to disregard any distractions in order to look around me, breathe, smell, see and think about what’s happening around me....

In this case as I open my eyes, it’s a smouldering pile of electronic waste before me.

This is Agbogbloshie, Ghana, where the overwhelming acrid smell is one of burnt plastic and car tyres.

We’re on assignment here to investigate the processing of electronic waste in Agbogbloshie, meet, interview and photograph locals; but most importantly, we’re here to meet with NGOs exploring alternative ways in which to process the waste. I’m with Gabbi  from the Lush ethical buying team, and Jordan and Erica from our film crew.

Agbogbloshie is often portrayed by the media as a very toxic and dangerous place  due to some of the waste disposal practices that take place here. I stand by and take a couple of frames as young men my age set fire to plastic cabling; to them it’s the fastest way to recover the resourceful metals inside, and who am I to say differently? However, this process releases harmful toxins and metals into the environment which are inhaled by those burning the waste. Other men pull apart old air conditioning units, yet more take shelter in hollowed out fridge casings. What all these residents have in common is that this is how they earn their living - processing  e-waste to earn an income.

As we tour the different areas of the site, one man demonstrates picking a fridge motor apart with a hammer to remove the copper coil - the sound makes my teeth chatter yet with exquisite precision he removes the valuable contents. These people are, effectively, skilled craftsmen, and the skill of extracting raw materials can earn them enough money to make a living.

But the burning taking place on the site is more complex than it first appears. The burning isn’t just to release copper and aluminium. As workers on the Agbogbloshie site also set alight fridge insulation foam, this works as a fuel to set car tyres alight and extract the steel belts within the rubber. With the burning of casings being a fast way to extract metals, this makes the issue of burning far more difficult to stop. One of the biggest challenges is domestic waste that is being set on fire. People assume that once they see smoke rising from Agbogbloshie it must be e-waste, but that’s not always the case.

Despite the soil contamination, polluted water and poor working conditions, Agbogbloshie harbours an entrepreneurial spirit, and a resourceful one at that. We were here to meet these NGOs such as Green Advocacy Ghana who have decided to invest in the entrepreneurial spirit of Agbogbloshie, but it is a tough environment to survive within. Perhaps rightfully so, the chairman of the site was reluctant to allow us to photograph workers on the site, this follows years of press coverage which hasn’t shown the site in the greatest light. The entrepreneurial side of Agbogbloshie is one many media outlets have chosen not to focus on, and this has had disastrous consequences. Back in June 2015 bulldozers backed by the Ghanaian army ripped through the site, leaving up to 20,000 refugees without homes. This was allegedly to build a recycling facility, but nothing has since been built and the workers of Agbogbloshie have continued to work.

Western consumers have been told for a long time now that 80% of their electronic waste is sent to places like Agbogbloshie, but that figure has since been discredited, according to local sources, and what we can now see with our own eyes is that those stories of mass burnings of old phones and cables is partly a myth. The more we explored the site and spoke with its residents, the more it became clear that a lot of the waste that ends up here is generated locally and not just imported.

It’s important that Ghanaians are able to access used electronic goods which can then give them a second ‘upcycled’ life whether repaired and used within an everyday context for work and personal use, or broken down to access the the raw materials which can then be reused.

The Ghanaians working here have a unique knowledge - a kind of ‘waste disposal’ craftsmanship - and in addition, alternatives to burning are being explored as we discover when we meet with Green Advocacy Ghana, one of those grassroots NGOs trying to make that change happen by identifying alternatives to simply burning e-waste.

Bennett, the organisation’s projects manager, tours us around the settlement the NGO has established in the heart of Agbogbloshie. It’s a large yard with three blue shipping containers joined up to one another; though we immediately notice piles upon piles of split PVC casing left in the courtyard. (We’re later told that this is the product leftover from the cable stripping machine designed by the NGO.)

Green Advocacy has has been involved with electronic waste since 2009. Following the bad press about the site, the NGO wanted to help talk about the environment, the pollutions and its effect on the city of Accra. Our hosts explain that on the site, people will use any means to extract aluminium, copper, usually by burning off the plastic without really thinking of what it could be doing to their health. To recover copper from cable, for example, they simply set it on fire and within a matter of minutes the valuable metal is available to sell. Green Advocacy wants other people to understand that the electronic waste recycling could be a real business and that exploring other methods of extraction could be a real entrepreneurial business opportunity.

Bennett shows us the cable-stripping machine centred in one of the containers; two of the workers demonstrate the stripping of cables and within seconds, a clean high grade aluminium is exposed, processed and weighed. For a very small fee, workers on the site can use the machine, saving time and resources, and most importantly their health.

Although it has taken Green Advocacy a while to get here, the benefits of using this alternative to burning is already starting to show. Bennett explains that there is no preferred method to strip the copper other than the way that the workers are used to. Eventually, they came up with a machine which strips the cover to expose the metals inside, not just copper. This provides better quality metals and higher yields than through burning. So far this has worked well, and now the NGO is working towards finding a way of using solar panels to power the machine. However, with this alternative comes the issue of what to do with the leftover plastic casing? PVC is only one of the plastics used; but there is also a common market for the Polyethylene (PE) casing.

Green Advocacy agrees that the leftover cabling that fills the courtyard is still an issue. It has tried encapsulating the the leftover plastic casing into concrete blocks. The plastic casings are washed, and shipped to another company, shredded down, mixed with the concrete and use as pavement blocks.

The cables that come to this site go are owned by different kinds of people; there are those bringing large amounts of cables who use the cable-stripping machine regularly but those with smaller amounts rarely use the machine. The idea, we learn,  is to turn Green Avocacy’s project into a more profitable enterprise, so then this resource can be made free to workers on the site to use, if they use the cable stripping machine, this removes the need to burn it. If they can get things running to pay for other aspects, then that will put them in a better position to help.

Lush Times has started an ongoing investigation into digital ethics, involving different narratives from around the world. Our long term solution is to create, develop and recycle our own ethical hardware in a closed loop cycle. Until then - damage prevention is key to reducing the environmental and health impacts of this wasteful process.

 

Agbogbloshie e-waste site
Agbogbloshie e-waste site
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