U.S. Electronic Waste Gets Sent to Africa

PHOTO: Electronic Junk from America finds its way to Africa.

It's the wet season now in Ghana, and the heavy, daily rains have turned the vast field behind the Agbogbloshie market into a muddy swamp.

With the mud so thick it can pull the shoes from your feet -- if you're lucky enough to have shoes -- the children come here to rummage and rake the mountains of electronic debris that spills across the landscape.

They are scavenging for copper wiring that they can sell. On a very good day, they can extract about $2 of copper from the broken computers, telephone answering machines and televisions that have been discarded.

Much of the e-waste in the Agbogbloshie dump comes from foreign countries, including the United States. Recyclers that buy it from government agencies ship it overseas in cargo containers mixed in with second-hand electronics. The buyer in the foreign country keeps what is salable and carts of what isn't to e-waste sites such as Agbogbloshie.

Children at Risk

Some of the children are aware that breaking open junked electronics exposes them to potentially harmful chemicals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium. Many don't know. No one is deterred.

Yusef Nashedu, 12, has been mining the field for copper for the past three years. He goes to school weekdays and comes here after school. On weekends, he spends all day in the dumpsite.

"Sometimes, I feel sick," Yusef said. "In my body, I can't feel free."

Dressed in short pants, a dirty polo shirt and plastic yellow flip-flops, Yusef shuffles through the jagged debris, stooped over, looking for copper wires.

Some of the children built fires on which they toss large hunks of discarded electronics. The fire melts the plastic, revealing the copper wires inside. The fire also releases toxic fumes.

"We are looking at immense health implications," said Mike Anane, a local environmental activist who frequently visits the Agbogbloshie field to warn the children and adults of the dangers of what they are doing.

"For the kids, we're talking about lowering the IQ as a result of the lead, of the mercury, even the cadmium. It affects the nervous system. These are kids. Their bodies are very vulnerable," Anane said.

It is difficult to trace where the e-waste comes from. Most of it has been shattered or broken into pieces that bear no identifying markings. But among the scattered junk are a few items with labels.

Anane held up computer pieces with decals for the Washington Metro Transit Authority, U.S. Army, State of Connecticut Mental Heath Facility, and other U.S. city, state and federal agencies. According to environmental group Greenpeace, even computers with the label of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were found at the dump.

Cheap Dumping Sends E-Waste Abroad

Under the 1998 Basel Convention, it is illegal for someone in a signatory country to send hazardous materials to another country without that recipient country's permission. But the United States, Afghanistan and Haiti never ratified the convention, so it is not unlawful in those countries.

In the case of the United States, which has stringent laws governing the disposal of e-waste, it is cheaper for recyclers to just ship the junked electronics to a country like Ghana than to properly dispose of it. And with few exceptions, it is legal.

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