In Plain Sight
Ever wonder what happens to the phones and computers you discard at the recycling center? Here’s an answer.
Photographs hint at the scale of the operation. But they don’t convey the stench of burning tires, or the din of hammers and machetes, or the combined voices of hundreds of people laboring to extract metals and other precious materials from the world’s mounting supply of electronic waste. Nor do photographs capture the ways that tens of thousands of tons of e-waste can alter a landscape like this—a roughly eight-acre site called Agbogbloshie, in Ghana’s capital city, Accra, about four miles from the presidential palace.
Every day, at unregulated recycling sites like this across Africa, China, and Southern and Southeast Asia, workers confront the e-waste that a fast-paced digital world—primarily the United States, Western Europe, and China—deems obsolete. The initial idea behind the transfer of used electronics was to bridge the global technology divide between low- and high-income countries, and to give outdated equipment a useful afterlife in an impoverished area. But for the most part the process has become a convenient way for wealthy nations to inexpensively dispose of their hazardous electronic trash.
It’s true that places like Agbogbloshie bring needed employment opportunities and income to thousands, says Rick Neitzel of the U-M SPH Department of Environmental Health Sciences, but because most such sites lack proper tools and infrastructure, they pose enormous health and environmental hazards. At Agbogbloshie, Neitzel has seen workers in flip-flops take machetes and hammers to computers and lead-acid batteries, and he’s watched chemicals spatter into the air and onto people’s skin. Workers at sites like this tend to live with their families either in adjacent neighborhoods, which lack clean water, sanitation, and medical care, or at the recycling site itself—where the air, water, and ground are contaminated with lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury, and where poor sanitation fosters disease.
Last year, in partnership with colleagues at the University of Ghana School of Public Health, Neitzel and his research team set out to assess the impact of toxic heavy metals and noise exposure on laborers at Agbogbloshie. But as Neitzel notes, the health hazards extended beyond Agbogbloshie itself. “You see cattle and poultry roaming among the e-waste, and you know those animals are being sold at markets. So not only are the air, water, and soil on and around the site contaminated, but these hazards are getting into the food chain as well.”
The team’s research at Agbogbloshie ended abruptly last summer when the Accra Metropolitan Assembly labeled the site and surrounding neighborhood a flooding hazard and razed it, evicting nearly 15,000 people. As of this spring, it was unclear whether a new recycling center would be built in or near Accra, but if one is, Neitzel hopes to work with e-waste workers to develop and implement safer practices. Meanwhile, he’s seeking other global sites where he can collaborate on issues like pollution, sanitation, and water. “We want to work with communities to find out what is feasible, sustainable, and will continue long after we’ve left the scene,” he says.
Neitzel believes the rest of the world needs to take action, too. “Waste-producing countries need to take more responsibility for where the e-waste is going and how it is handled when it gets there. Consumers and manufacturers are driving the problem. We need to get more involved and connected to the process.”