Electronic waste, or “e-waste“, is a major problem of the information age. As consumers continually upgrade their electronic devices, the old devices are discarded and usually end up in a toxic e-waste dump, usually located in a poor developing country. Such a dump is located in the capital city of the African country, Ghana. Toxic chemicals from the dump, known as the Agbogbloshie scrap metal site, have affecting the nearby community market, church headquarters, and school. Contaminants include lead, cadmium, and others, some at levels over 50 times higher than risk-free levels.
Electronics are incinerated at the Agbogbloshie site, and the copper is usually recycled. Soil sampling was done from the surrounding properties, and the samples were tested for iron, magnesium, copper, zinc, cadmium, chromium, nickel, and lead, all metals that can be found in modern electronics. Dangerously high levels were found at the school and local market.
The Ghanan researcher, Atiemo Sampson, reported the results at the Solving the E-Waste Problem Summer School, hosted in Europe by Philips and Umicore to a group of dedicated graduate students. Mr. Sampson stated that similar e-waste sites are being developed in other locations in Ghana. Much of the e-waste is brought in from overseas, particularly North America and Europe.
“Until now, Ghana has not regulated the importation and management of e-waste,” said Mr. Sampson. “Although Ghana is a signatory to the Basel Convention (which regulates the import and export of hazardous wastes), rules are only now being incorporated into our national legal framework. The government hopes to have new rules in place next year.”
One problem is that operating an e-waste site can be highly lucrative. The metals recovered can be worth a lot of money, such as gold, copper, and silver. “The sheer number of people engaged in informal recycling in the Agbogbloshie scrap yard makes it increasingly unthinkable politically to eject them from that location,” added Mr. Sampson. “The livelihood of many people now depends on the income generated by these activities at e-waste scrap yards. Therefore any solution must recognize their role and focus on improving health, safety and environmental standards.”
International shipments of e-waste are outlawed, but occur nonetheless by unscrupulous handlers. Students at the conference in Europe agreed that the e-waste problem requires technological, behavioral, economic, and political solutions. Manufacturers also need to incorporate life-cycle analysis in their products.
Article by David A. Gabel, appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.