January 1, 2020
14 Min read time
A look at Agbogbloshie, Ghana, an informal recycling hub so misunderstood.
Last updated: Feb 22, 2022 14:41 PM GMT
Urgent Update: The Agbogbloshie Scrapyard was violently demolished by the Ghana Government on 1 July 2021. This changes everything. Read more in the link below:
A formerly wetland-rich landscape, the poverty and heavy metals pollution at Agbogbloshie, Ghana, have been the subjects of many international headlines and essays over the years.
While there is sound logic to point fingers at the Western use-and-throw-away consumer culture for a place such as Agbogbloshie, I’ll be arguing on this page that this blame-casting business frequently goes overboard by absolving poorer countries for their lax environmental regulations.
Agbogbloshie in 2021
Agbogbloshie remains in poverty’s tight grip alright. But make no mistake — it is not only the poor who participate in the waste economy. It is a very profitable business.
In the photo below, the young men (known as ‘burner boys’) had been burning waste cables to recover copper in the rain. But they are only the physical manifestations of the copper business at Agbogbloshie. The wires frequently belong to scrap dealers known as ‘masters’.
The wires being incinerated in the photos had been collected from local sources. From junkyards (wiring harness), electrical shops, house wiring contractors, and households, where they had paid a small fee for old and unused electronics that had been in Ghana for decades.
Scrap workers also remove copper wires from cathode-ray tube (CRT) TVs, old computers, and other end-of-life e-waste.
There are layers of people involved in the copper burning and e-waste business at Agbogbloshie. For copper:
- Itinerant collectors — small-time collectors travel far and wide with pushcarts to buy e-waste from households, wiring harness from junkyards, and other cables from electrical shops and house wiring contractors. They also scavenge for scrap metal. Others use motorized tricycles and trucks.
- The collectors sell their wares to scrap dealers (known as ‘masters’) at Agbogbloshie and other places for cheap. To maximize income, a lot of the collectors now cut through the chain and deal with recovery themselves.
- The scrap dealers’ apprentices (known as ‘boys’) use bare hands and hammers to break apart some of the e-waste for the precious materials inside, including insulated wires. The wires are bundled together with other cables and sent to the ‘Kilimanjaro’ and ‘Bombay’ burning sites. The ‘Kilimanjaro’ copper burning site is the open incineration area near the Korle Lagoon. ‘Bombay’ is the area behind the headquarters of the ICGC church.
- Depending on the load, the ‘burner boys‘ can be paid between GH₵2.00 (around $0.35 as of August 2020) and GH₵200 ($35).
- The ‘burner boys’ then use styrofoam packing and scrap tires as fuel to remove the plastic sheaths off the insulated wires.
- The freshly recovered copper wires are then immediately carted away, weighed and sold, for instant cash.
- The wires now start their journey. The vast bulk is exported out of Ghana, where they are used as primary inputs in the production of new devices.
- It is this demand and supply that is fueling the toxic pollution at Agbogbloshie.
But these tragic scenes (photos above) are frequently misreported as ‘poor people in poorer countries burn e-waste from the rich West.‘ That is mostly not the case, at least not for Agbogbloshie in the better part of the last decade.
For me, constructing the narrative this way does not only take away the agency of these struggling people but also makes a mockery of their poverty. That, they are too passive to be conscious of their attempt to improve their material condition. It must be the West’s fault.
Auto parts such as car steering wheels and armature, and several copper-embedded household items are incinerated every day alongside waste cables at Agbogbloshie.
On liability — is it the manufacturers/the countries of origin of the car steering wheels (removed from scrapped cars) in the photo below or the local government that controls the realities that define poverty, health, and the environment?
Clearly the problem is not the waste itself. Agbogbloshie would hardly receive a bad rap if the e-waste is processed in a manner that does not pose risk to human health and the environment.
The vast bulk of the e-waste ending up at Agbogbloshie is generated by people in Ghana.
There’s a market for e-waste in Ghana. The imported televisions, stereo systems, desktop computers, etc., first add value to the local economy by several years of use by households and businesses before ending up at a place such as Agbogbloshie.
For me, the ecological collapse that Agbogbloshie represents could only have resulted from the shortsighted environmental policies of Ghana’s successive governments.
Characterizations such as those above frequently miss some key perspectives: local perception and knowledge. This raises several questions for me:
- What do the people themselves think?
- Why do they resist development interventions?
- Do they interpret their problems in the manner that we attempt to theorize them?
- Is it too late to re-theorize Agbogbloshie?
The answers to some of the questions above can be found in another question, which is this: where did all the trillions of dollars in aid money to the world’s poor go in the last 70 years?
These questions are relevant to Agbogbloshie and the several attempts — some with donor aid money — to restore the landscape, in my opinion.
Use the table of contents below to navigate through the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about Agbogbloshie, Ghana.
Table of Contents
Brief History of Agbogbloshie
Agbogbloshie was a temporary settlement for refugees from what is locally known as the Guinea Fowl War (the Kokomba-Nanumba war of 1994).
A high ranking member of the leadership of the Agbogbloshie scrapyard has told me that small scrap activities started near the Old Fadama Police Station towards ‘Galloway’ as far back as the 1980s.
Things picked up around the late 90s after the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association was formed.
Agbogbloshie was a thriving wetland with a wildlife population until the area became a slumland.
Where is Agbogbloshie Located?
Agbogblshie is situated on the Korle Lagoon, near the heart of Accra, the capital of Ghana.
Fed by the Odaw River, the Korle Lagoon links to the Gulf of Guinea, the northeasternmost part of the tropical Atlantic Ocean.
Agbogbloshie is about a kilometer away from Makola, one of Ghana’s largest markets, and around 10 km away from the Kotoka International Airport.
What is Going on at Agbogbloshie?
Scrap and electronic waste activities have raised toxicity concerns around Agbogbloshie for more than a decade now.
Hundreds of scrap workers toil in the toxic environment at Agbogbloshie every day trying to salvage usable components from the waste stream.
The scrapyard demolition in July 2021 has relocated most e-waste and scrap practices to the Old Fadama informal settlement, much closer to where people live.
Agbogbloshie is also the largest open food market in Accra.
This is how the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations characterized Agbogbloshie in 2016:
“Agbogbloshie is a toxic threat. The burning of e-waste releases toxic fumes that spread throughout the community, threatening city dwellers. The toxic chemical fumes released get into the food market and get inside the soil throughout the area when it rains. Indeed, high levels of toxins have been discovered in soil and food samples, as these chemicals stay in the food chain.” – FAO 20161
Agbogbloshie is a toxic threat. The burning of e-waste releases toxic fumes that spread throughout the community, threatening city dwellers. The toxic chemical fumes released get into the food market and get inside the soil throughout the area when it rains. Indeed, high levels of toxins have been discovered in soil and food samples, as these chemicals stay in the food chain.”FAO 2016
There are several environmental and health hazards related to recycling at Agbogbloshie (and economic significance, which is not the subject of this post). Among them:
1. The open burning of waste cables to recover copper
While mechanical processes such as hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy are used to recover traces of valuable metals from electronic waste in other parts of the world, urban miners at Agbogbloshie frequently use styrofoam packaging and scrap tires as fuel to remove the plastic sheaths off electrical wires for the copper materials inside.
This releases a cocktail of highly toxic substances into Accra’s air, the soil, and groundwater.
This is a major source of air pollution in Accra Central.
More than 28,000 people die from air pollution in Ghana every year, according to the World Health Organization.2
Air pollution is a leading risk factor for premature death in Ghana.
Armature, steering wheels, and all sorts of copper embedded materials — including heliax coaxial cables — are also openly incinerated.
Don’t be too quick to start pointing fingers yet.
Contrary to what many documentaries — and short-time visitors who assume expertise on Agbogbloshie overnight — would have you believe, the burning of waste cables to recover copper-clad steels has very little to do with the illegal importation of electronic waste into Ghana.
Significant chunks of the waste cables incinerated in the open at Agbogbloshie are collected locally — from auto repair shops (wiring harness), households, building contractors, and other junkyards.
The burning of electrical wires at Agbogbloshie is a local problem that should be dealt with by the Government of Ghana — not Germany or the USA.
Don’t confuse this problem with the unsafe dismantling of e-waste at Agbogbloshie. They are not the same problem.
2. The unsafe dismantling of e-waste at Agbogbloshie
This problem usually involves the use of screw drivers, hammers, bare hands, and rocks, to dismantle parts of old television sets, laptops, desktop computers, mobile phones, and other electronics to retrieve the valuable materials inside.
Wires from e-waste are also bundled together and incinerated for the copper materials inside.
The unsafe dismantling of e-waste and the open burning of electrical wires to retrieve copper raise very serious concerns about toxicity at Agbogbloshie.
Scrap workers, the public (Agbogbloshie is the largest open food market in Accra), and livestock come in direct contact with toxic substances, including arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants, at Agbogbloshie, every day.
In a study published in 2013, Jack Caranavos of New York University and other researchers found lead levels as high as 18,125 parts per million (ppm)3 in one of the soil samples they collected from around Agbogbloshie.
US EPA’s recommended standard for lead in bare soil in non-play areas is 1200 ppm and 400 ppm for play areas.4
A 2019 study by the Basel Action Network and the International Pollutants Elimination Network also found high levels of toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and chlorinated dioxins in free-range chicken eggs at Agbogbloshie.5
What are Some Toxic and Hazardous Materials in E-waste At Agbogbloshie?
Ghana lacks the capacity to manage hazardous substances in e-waste.
Certain hazardous materials in electronics have been banned for several decades now, but because the majority of the e-waste that ends up at Agbogbloshie are old, they are mostly filled with toxic substances that pose risks to human health and the environment.
1. Lead: This can be found in CRT screens, printed boards, and batteries, at Agbogbloshie. Children as young as 7 years use bare hands, rocks, and hammers to dismantle end-of-life e-waste for the metals inside at Agbogbloshie.
The Agbogbloshe e-waste dump is strewn with broken CRT TV and monitor glasses.
Lead is known to cause severe impairment in children as it can affect the development of their brain and nervous system.
According to the World Health Organization, there is no known safe blood lead concentration. This means that even a small amount of exposure can cause harmful health effects in both children and adults.
A study by Richard Canfield and other researchers in 2003 found a significant link between high blood lead concentration and a decline in IQ in children.
2. Mercury: This can be found in batteries, thermostats, and switches.
Exposure to mercury is associated with kidney damage, and it’s also known to impair neurological development in children.
As an e-waste and auto parts processing area, Agbogbloshie is filled with devices that contain batteries, thermostats, and switches.
3. Chromium: This can be found in a lot of electronic devices due to its ability to prevent corrosion. It also helps to increase the conductivity of electrical impulses.
Chromium is associated with occupational asthma, kidney, and liver damage, with the highly dangerous hexavalent chromium recognized as a carcinogen.
Other hazardous substances that can be found at Agbogbloshie include cadmium, dioxins, furans, and PCBs.
Is Agbogbloshie The Most Toxic Environment in the World?
Agbogbloshie is often erroneously listed as the most toxic environment in the world (in reference to Pure Earth & Green Cross Switzerland’s ratings).
Pure Earth (formerly the Blacksmith Institute) is a not-for-profit organization that helps to clean up toxic pollution in some of the world’s poorest regions.
Green Cross Switzerland was founded by the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1993 to provide assistance to country’s facing severe environmental degradation.
Pure Earth and Green Cross Switzerland got together and made a list of the world’s top ten most toxic environments titled:
THE WORLDS WORST 2013: THE TOP TEN THREATS.
Agbogbloshie, Ghana, was the only toxic threat to start with the letter ‘A’ on the list, thereby earning it the top-most position.
The toxic threats locations were not ranked — merely listed in alphabetical order.
Many people who did not notice this began spreading the word that Abgogbloshie was the most polluted place on earth. This is not accurate by Pure Earth & Green Cross Switzerland’s ratings.
You can see the list in this document.
Here’s the list below:
THE WORLDS WORST 2013: THE TOP TEN THREATS.
- Agbogbloshie, Ghana
- Chernobyl, Ukraine
- Citarum River, Indonesia
- Dzershinsk, Russia
- Hazaribagh, Bangladesh
- Kabwe, Zambia
- Kalimantan, Indonesia
- Matanza Riachuelo, Argentina
- Niger River Delta, Nigeria
- Norilsk, Russia
Is Agbogbloshie The Largest Electronic Waste Processing Area in the World?
It is unlikely that a scrapyard covering a total area of around 4,400 foots could be the largest electronic waste processing area in the world. China’s Giuyu6 covers more than 50 square kilometers.
According to Pure Earth and Green Cross Switzerland, Agbogbloshie is the second largest e-waste processing area in the West Africa sub-region. The Alaba Market7 in Lagos, Nigeria, is much more prominent.
You can safely dismiss any headline that claims Agbogbloshie is the largest electronic waste dump in the world.
Who Profits From Agbogbloshie?
The valuable metal recovery business at Agbogbloshie is very lucrative.
According to a UN Environment Programme report, the estimated value of recoverable materials in e-waste is worth over $62 billion every year8. This is bigger than Ghana’s 2017 GDP of $58.9 Billion (World bank).
Low-level scrap workers and Accra residents suffer the most while the main ‘masters’, their clientele, and the Ghana Government earn from this.
The Ghana Government earns from this through the use of recycled materials by the local industry and export taxes.
The price of copper at Agbogbloshie as of February 2021 was GH₵16 (around $2.7/ Feb 2021 FX Rate) per pound. According to macrotrents.com, the global price of copper as of February 19, 2021, was around $4.07 per pound.
Some of the recovered copper wires from Agbogbloshie are exported, where they are used as inputs in the production of new products.
Some of the ‘burner boys’ earn as low as GH₵2 (around $0.35 as at the time of writing this) per burn, and sometimes as high as GH₵200 (around $35) or more on a good day.
The ‘burner boys’ are the least earned in the process from picking up the wires to exporting them out of Ghana.
And as I have argued elsewhere about this, removing the ‘burner boys’ from the picture won’t solve the problem of the open burning of electrical wires at Agbogbloshie.
Removing the ‘burner boys’ won’t stop the demand for copper either.
The workers would find new ‘burner boys’ in a heartbeat.
They only have to cross the Korle into the nearby settlements, and thousands of jobless urban poor would be more than happy to do the burning.
Read more about this perspective here.
Ghana E-waste Statistics
Ghana generated roughly around 53 kt of e-waste — 1.8 kg per capita — in 2019, data from the Global E-waste Monitor 2020 study shows.9
Agbogbloshie E-waste Statistics
Getting reliable data from scrap dealers at Agbogbloshie is a big problem.
Much of the information Agbogbloshie scrap workers provide cannot be verified.
I’m currently using a different method to gather some usable data.
I collect data at Agbogbloshie for my personal use — to have a far better understanding of the problem. Not for academic purposes.
I’ll do my best to share some of them on www.muntaka.com whenever I’m able to find the time to process them.
Where Does The Electronic Waste in Ghana Come From?
Again, don’t be too quick to start pointing fingers.
Most of the electronic waste in Ghana are generated by people in the country.
True, they were imported, but they first add value to the local economy, by several years of use by people in Ghana before ending up at a place such as Agbogbloshie. I can’t stress this point enough.
This is one from the Government of Ghana:
LMICs stands for low-and middle-income countries.
The claim above in the Ghana Health and Pollution Action Plan10 is spurious and problematic.
As I have repeatedly argued, there’s a large market for e-waste in Ghana. Secondhand printers, computers, televisions, and other e-waste are first used by people in Ghana before being cannibalized for parts at a place such as Agbogbloshie. They mostly do not go straight from the seaports to a place such as Agbogbloshie.
If the e-waste were mostly imported purposely for recycling, then this should imply that most Ghanaian households do not use televisions at all or only use brand new LED TVs which cost a few hundred dollars or more (in a country with around $2,000 GDP per capita).
The Basel Convention still provides for the importation of electronic waste for repairs and reuse under certain terms, so yes, electronic waste still gets in.
Secondhand electronics are not unique to Ghana. I doubt Agbogbloshie would have gained notoriety if e-waste is recycled in a manner that does not pose risks to human health and the environment.
“This was mainly done without any regard for the hazard that they pose to the environment or for the health risk they pose to the people living in the area,” the highlighted Ghana Government document above adds.
Take the electric meter scrap above generated by the Ghana Government-owned Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG).
The meters were government properties. They ended up at Agbogbloshie despite the ECG having a decommissioning plan.
The informal recyclers dumped the unwanted parts near the Korle Lagoon, where children further cannibalized from them.
While some are imported, a lot of the ECG meters are assembled in Ghana.
It is unlikely you will find references to this in a Ghana Government document, which makes spurious claims about e-waste being imported with the intent to immediately send them out to a place such as Agbogbloshie.
It is clear the problem here is not the e-waste itself. It is policy and enforcement on the part of the Ghanaian Government, which are lacking.
As a local myself, I can attest to how valuable used electronics are to the local economy. I have used the same secondhand Morphy Richards steam iron since 2012. It still works just fine.
I picked up the steam iron for GH₵60 (around $31 in 2012). Not sure if one of the latest built-in obsolescence clothes iron would have lasted this long even after being used before crossing the Atlantic to my parts.
According to the World Bank widget below, Ghana’s GDP per capita is around $2,200 (2018). Not exactly the country a lot of people can afford brand new high-end gadgets.
Reuse is actually encouraged by the Basel Convention as a way to reduce the environmental footprint of manufacturing electronics.
Where Does Your Electronic Waste Go?
If you live in Ghana, your electronic waste most likely eventually ends up at a place such as Agbogbloshie.
There’s a small chance your electronic waste ends up at Agbogbloshie if you live in Berlin, New York or Tokyo, these days.
If they do end up in Ghana, while some may still go straight to a place such as Agbogbloshie, the majority are used by locals for years before ending up at an informal recycling area.
Has There Been An Attempt to Tackle Environmental Pollution at Agbogbloshie?
Yes, there have been several attempts over the years to tackle Agbogbloshie. None has worked so far, though.
Pure Earth, GreenAd, and the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association in 2014 inaugurated wire-stripping machines inside the Agbogbloshie scrapyard to help tackle the open burning of waste cables. In short, this has not worked.
Read more about why the granulators are not working in the link below:
The German implementing Agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) with Ghana’s Ministery of Environment also jointly inaugurated a €5million health post and training workshop inside the Agbogbloshie scrapyard to help tackle the impact of e-waste in Ghana.
Read the link above to see my criticism of this facility, and why it won’t be doing much to help with the situation.
There has been too much emphasis on technical solutions to Agbogbloshie. This is a problem on its own, I think.
My question is this: how do you tackle problems in poverty-stricken landscapes without involving the people directly and without critical data?
Agbogbloshie 2020 and The Farewell
It was the end of a decade, and for me, it was also the end of an era.
I grabbed the scene above on December 31, 2019, to mark the end of my uninvited participation at that area of society. That is, on the open burning of waste cables to recover copper at Agbogbloshie, Ghana. I announce this with a heavy heart.
But I’m not totally moving out of Agbogbloshie. I’m merely moving a few yards away from the burning problem. I’ll spend some time on the issue of children using bare hands, rocks, and hammers to dismantle e-waste for metals before eventually bowing out to focus on other issues in society.
I have hinted in some of my write-ups about what I thought were some of the ways to approach Agbogbloshie over the time I have spent documenting and collecting great amount of data on the open burning of electrical wires.
During this period, I have followed the itinerant collectors/scavengers throughout Accra to see the sources of the wires, and for my use, I have also traced the journeys of some of the copper wires from Agbogbloshie to the exit points. I have also collected a great amount of air quality data around Agbogbloshie and beyond.
I gave out a lot of particulate and elastomeric respirators around Agbogbloshie to help minimize their exposure to particulates and certain gaseous pollutants from the open burning of waste cables.
I tried my best to help whenever the ‘burner boys’ brought their personal problems to me. This included medical costs and accommodation. For what its worth, I’m happy to have helped.
The open burning of copper wires bothers me due to the health risks it poses to Accra residents.
But I think you can say that I lost in the end, and the Government of Ghana and their partners have won. This problem persists and worse than it has ever been.
I meet new young people who had just arrived to begin life as ‘burner boys’ almost every time I go to Agbogbloshie. I have tried to tie this problem to Africa’s youth bulge as one of the reasons why the Ghanaian Government and their partners should rethink their strategy.
Ghana Government And Agbogbloshie
Prof. Kwabena Frimpong Boateng, Ghana’s Minister for Environment, Science, Technology & Innovation, announced in a room packed full of journalists on July 2, 2019, that, the open burning of electrical wires was no longer a concern at Agbogbloshie as the inaugurated Agbogbloshie Technical Training Centre has managed to curb it.
He went on to caution the Ghanaian journalists present to ignore all images coming out of Agbogbloshie as they may have been unearthed from the archives to mischaracterize the situation.
Let me clarify this again — the minister’s claim was not true in July 2019, and still not true when I last updated this article.
I reacted to this in the local media here.
If the minister’s claims were true (July 2019), why did his own agency (EPA) threatened to prosecute people who burn e-waste in July 2020 and even went on to arrest some burner boys in late August 2020?
The Agbogbloshie Technical Training Centre, for now, trains the scrap workers on how to safely dismantle e-waste. I also heard they train young women on how to make soap and other items including ‘bofrott’, a local snack.
It’s a training center and does not provide for whatever the minister claimed. Again, thanks to the German Government for this. For my part, I see the point. I hope it all works out in the end.
Many thanks for tagging along. I hope my part in this has been helpful to anyone who cares about this situation.
And so ends this chapter!
© 2020 Muntaka Chasant
January 1, 2020
14 Min read time