Posted by: rumnet | May 24, 2012

UN Reports on Alarming Amounts of e-Waste in Ghana

(Published in the May 2012 edition of the advocate)

By Katrina Charnley

 Growing levels of electronic waste (e-waste) in Ghana is presenting both new opportunities and problems for local communities. With the rising global consumer demand for electronics, both the formal and informal economy in recycling near end-of-life electronic equipment – as well as illegal dumping – is growing fast across West Africa. The result has been an increasing waste stream influx of old and broken electronics, often with short life spans, to West African countries.

A recent publication by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) examines the socio-economic and environmental impacts that the increase in e-waste has created in five West African countries – Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria.

According to the report, recycling and collection of e-waste in Ghana is predominantly carried out by non-registered individuals who collect e-waste as well as other kinds of scrap metal either from household to household, on the street and from dumping sites.  Collectors can be found stripping copper from old wires, and extracting other valuable metals and chemicals (hazardous or not) such as gold, steel, copper, silver, as well as mercury or lead.

Regardless of long hours and most living below the internationally defined poverty line of US$1.25 a day, the study found that most of the collectors and recyclers interviewed were thankful for the source of income these materials provided.  Although it is hard to quantify the value of this informal economy, the informal and formal income generated by the e-waste sector in Ghana, including refurbishing used electronics is estimated to be between US$106 million and $268 million per year.

Despite these financial gains and job creation for some, the influx of e-waste has created significant problems in the recipient countries. Around 171,000 tons of e-waste was found in Ghana according to the report. This e-waste often contains heavy metal chemicals such as lead, cadmin, barium, mercury and arsenic, which can present serious dangers to humans and the environment. Workers that are engaged in collecting and recycling e-waste are exposed to severe health and safety risks, which mainly stem from poor working conditions, notably handling heavy and sometimes sharp wastes material with sharp edges, which has led to spinal injuries, cuts, and infections according to the report. Hazardous substances that are released in the process of dismantling and disposal also pose a significant health concern.

A study by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency released last year writes that by using modern incineration facilities the emissions of harmful compounds can be minimized. The open burning of e-waste, which is practiced in Ghana, releases harmful emissions in substantial quantities in the exhaust gases, as well as pollutants which leach into the soil from the residual ashes.  The health effects of these toxins on humans can include problems related to respiratory, pulmonary, cardiovascular, genotoxic, estrogenic and reproductive problems, to name just a few.

The UNEP’s Basel Convention, which was adopted on March 22nd in 1989 with the objective to “protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes”, has declared their support for the economic opportunities generated by e-waste in West Africa and other parts of the world with the condition that the e-waste is dismantled and recycled safely.

However, the challenges around ensuring e-waste is dismantled and recycled properly has yet to be fully addressed in Ghana. These challenges include the need for a formal collection strategy of these items, and having policies and laws in place to ensure that the high volumes of valuable and non-valuable wastes are collected equally and that all wastes are disposed off in appropriate treatment and disposal facilities.

There is still much room for improving Ghana’s response to these challenges. The report explains that in Ghana, “there are a number of laws and regulations that have some relevance to the control and management of hazardous wastes (including e-waste) but they do not address the dangers posed to humans and the environment from such wastes”.

The Pan-African Forum on E-Waste, which was held on March 14th in Niarobi, Kenya, adopted a “Call to Action” urging all countries to focus efforts on 8 priority areas to improve the management of e-waste in Africa.  These include: The enforcement by African states of the Basel Convention on  the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and the Disposal  and the Bamako Convention (which bans the import of hazardous wastes into Africa); creation of national systems to improve the collection, recycling, transport, storage and disposal of e-waste; National institutions to co-operate with multiple stakeholders (UN, NGOs, private sector and others) in producing e-waste assessment; Recognition that the safe and sustainable recycling of e-waste provides an opportunity for green jobs and poverty reduction; Increasing awareness on environmental and health hazards linked to the poor management of e-waste.


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