Where your electronic waste goes: A ruined city in Ghana called “Agbogbloshie”


Does the name mean anything to you?  Probably not. But it should.

Agbogbloshie is hardly a household word. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue with familiarity. But it should be as familiar to us as the names of some of the storied (and reviled) places where our high-tech toys are designed and manufactured.  If there were any fairness left in the world, Agbogbloshie would be designated as a sister city to Cupertino (headquarters of Apple), Palo Alto (headquarters of Hewlett-Packard), Tucheng, Taiwan (headquarters of Foxcom), and Seoul, South Korea (headquarters of Samsung).

After all, Agbogbloshie is a vital link in the chain of electronic-waste (e-waste) disposal that stretches from those first-world cities and the high-tech industries that thrive in them to the poverty-stricken African nation of Ghana.

Isn’t it time to be reminded that when we’re seduced by the latest digital device with its fifty cool features we’ll never use and dump last year’s shiny new thing with the forty cool features we never used that the old stuff’s got to go somewhere? That somewhere often is Agbogbloshie, a ruined city that’s been called the “dirty secret of the hi-tech industry.”  If it’s easier for you to pronounce, just call it Sodom and Gomorrah, the nickname residents have given the city in acknowledgment of the sordid living conditions and rampant crime that plague the lives of those who call the place “home.”

Agbogbloshie has the dubious distinction of being the world’s (our) digital dumping ground. Hundreds of millions of tons of legal and illegal e-waste find their way to this single location.  It’s a place of 70,000 residing illegally amongst the garbage and toxic fumes.  It’s where adults and children eke out a meager existence by sorting through the remains of our discarded iPhones, Blackberries, monitors, hard drives, keyboards, and printers.  You name it.  If we’ve dumped it for the newest or sexiest electronic device, this is where the device might end its short life.  It’s us. It’s the Germans, and it’s the Brits who are most responsible.  The first-world compulsion to be the first to have the newest device has led to the Korle Lagoon in Agbogbloshie being designated one of the world’s most polluted bodies of water.

Out of sight.  Out of mind.  For technology chasers the newest “get” is what they’ve got to have.  And bless them. Our economy of unsustainability and Wall Street speculation thrive on their compulsion. Still, behind all the money making lurks the question of where all the waste goes at the other end.

Not knowing—and not caring—where the waste goes represents willful ignorance on a monstrous scale.

Let’s step back for a moment.  How did we—both industry and consumer—get here? All you need to know are two fateful words: planned obsolescence.  American industrial designer Brooks Stevens first articulated the idea of planned obsolescence fifty years ago. Stevens was way ahead of the norms of his time when he observed that businesses could grow market share by pursuing design that would make products obsolete in two ways.  Stevens defined those two ways as obsolescence of desirability and obsolescence of functionality.

Industry didn’t wait long to embrace Stevens’s ideas.  Manufacturers followed a path of obsolescence that has brought the U.S. to the point where we inhabit—and contentedly participate in—the most wasteful consumer society on the globe. Refrigerators, washers and dryers, dishwashers, hot-water heaters, irons, toasters.  Homeowners know too well the replacement dance.   Day one after the ten-year mark and they’re dying or dead.  And the tech industry has gone even further down that hole by making the obsolescence time frame even shorter.

And how do our obsolete playthings end up in Agbogbloshie? Here in America legitimate recycling companies buy e-waste from private companies and the government. The waste is then legally shipped to Ghana. E-waste items also enter Ghana legally as second-hand donations. Once in country, buyers sort through for  salvagable parts and then dump the leftovers in the Korle Lagoon.

What happens then is unconscionable. Adults and children sift through the waste, setting fires to strip away the plastic sheathing from the sellable copper wiring. The constant burning means that squatters in the dump and the two million inhabitants of the city of Accra (downwind from the dump) breathe a daily dose of smoke and fumes containing highly toxic chemicals and carcinogens. These include lead, cadmium, dioxins, flame retardants, and furians—chemicals that cause brain damage and are particularly harmful to the reproductive and nervous systems of developing children.

Recognizing the vulnerability of developing nations like Ghana and the developed world’s e-waste proclivities, the international community negotiated The Basel Convention, a treaty meant to control the movement of hazardous waste between nations, particularly the transfer from developed to less-developed countries. The treaty was opened for signatures in 1989 and put into force in 1992.  As of 2013, 179 countries and the European Union are parties to the convention.

And how seriously does the United States take its responsibilities as one of the largest producers of e-waste? The answer to that is sadly predictable. President George H.W. Bush signed the treaty in 1990. Congress has yet to ratify it.