While old electronics pile up and turn Accra’s neighborhood Agbogbloshie into the most polluted place on earth, international agreements trying to stop the transportation of electronic waste (E-waste) to developing countries fail. Reason to worry? “No”, is the firm response of Rafa Font, founder of Recyhub, and DK Osseo-Asare, co-founder of the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP). “Instead of banning E-waste trade, we should foster it.” What’s more, no help from outside is needed. Agbogbloshie can save itself.
The viewpoint shared by Font and Osseo-Asare is remarkably different from major international organizations such Greenpeace and the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). After being moved by images of young boys burning cables – surrounded by alarming clouds of smoke, their hands covered in dirt and untreated wounds – these organizations called for serious limitations or even a complete ban on E-waste transportation to developing countries.
A dismantler at Agbogbloshie
It’s an understandable pursuit. Mike Anane, Ghanaian environmental environmentalist, tells how Agbogbloshie– home to approximately 50.000 people –transformed in only one decade from a serene neighborhood, with rivers, a lagoon and many fish, into one where levels of contamination are a 100 times higher than Greenpeace considers healthy and acceptable, so Mike Anane, Ghanaian environmental journalist, tells us. “And the worst part is that virtually all E-waste comes from abroad.”.
Ghana’s largest call for concern is the toxic effects that E-Waste has on human health and the environment Iryna Labunska, radiation safety advisor for Greenpeace, calls it an “extremely dangerous kind of ordure”, explaining “electronics are full of toxic chemicals and metal leads that people not only breath in, but contaminate water, soil and thus the food chain. Long term exposure harms almost all organs, bones, fertility and IQ to name just a few.”
Beyond a Ban
Why would Rafa Font want to foster such a dangerous kind of waste? “Simply because it isn’t waste”, he explains. “It may be waste in the perspective of the user who throws his laptop away, but as soon as such a ‘useless’ device arrives in Agbogbloshie, it becomes a product again; a resource. It gets processed and becomes a fresh start for an old product.”
Font argues that people who call for a ban misunderstand the problem. “Recycling is in essence an environmentally friendly practice”, he argues. “Hence, the problem is not the E-waste in itself, as is often assumed, but the way the waste is dismantled. It doesn’t have to harm anyone if we enable the people at Agbogbloshie to do it safely.”
However, to ban E-Waste from reaching Agbogbloshie, would be to deny its economic importance, since workers depend on dismantling, repairing and refurbishing the materials to survive. The place is not a dump, but a recycling center that employs thousands of poor people. “I have no other way to win my daily bread”, says the 30-year old Mohammed Ibrahim, who provides for a family of two wives and six kids. “I grew up in a slum and didn’t go to school; what other options do I have?” Prohibiting E-waste transportation to Agbogbloshie would have devastating consequences for Ibrahim and around 10,000 others with similar fates.
Moreover, a ban may not be effective in reducing the demand for the raw materials that drive the E-waste trade. Thus, the solution should not be sought in a ban, Font believes, but in technological innovation to enable safe recycling. “If you frame the problem as ‘Ghana is in need of technical expertise’, the solution is all of a sudden much more tangible and realistic.” Such a solution doesn’t depend on inefficient and bureaucratic international decision making, but can be achieved locally – and with much more ease.
Testing the Quadcopter, that is used to map Agbogbloshie and monitor levels of air pollution
From recycling to E-cycling
Driven by the belief that Agbogbloshie can solve its own E-Waste problems, DK Osseo-Asare and Yasmine Abbas founded Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform. A local initiative to fight for better working and living conditions, AMP is an alliance of hundreds of young people from a variety of backgrounds. Uneducated cable burners and upper-class university students share not only the same workspace, but the same goal to make Agbogbloshie a safer and healthier place, while amplifying its economic potential.
The makerspace opens its doors this week and will provide safe tools for the approximate 600 scrap workers who are thus far involved. Meanwhile, a few dozen work on technological innovations, such as the E-Cycle. This bike can be used to extract the precious copper from cables without needing to burn them – a common but extremely toxic recycling practice in Agogbloshie. When using the E-Cycle, all one has to do is move the pedals around to remove the rubber coating from the wires. The design is cheap and can be built with locally available materials. It is patent-free, which allows everyone – including the poorest workers – to imitate the design.
AMP’s ideology is not to work for the workers at Agbogbloshie, but with them. “The scrap workers are technologists in a very practical way, but with a lack of education; whereas the STEAM professionals that are involved (students or recent graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts or Mathematics) have considerable theoretical knowledge, but are un- or underemployed and lack practical experience. If you bring these two together and create an interclass social network, that this can drive innovation”, explains Osseo-Asare.
This has led to additional innovative ideas, such as the proposal to recycle materials once thought too toxic to reuse. It may now be possible to grind circuit boards into a fine powder that can be used to separate the different materials through a sophisticated chemical process. It is harmless, but too pricey for the start-up phase that AMP is currently in. However Osseo-Asake sees no problem: “We wanted to start on the ground and work with what people know, instead of starting in an ivory tower and coming in with our biases. We build, share, get feedback, make again, get new feedback – and so further and so forth. The high-tech aspects will come when the time is right.”
An example of upcycling – this computer is made out of components from different end of life pc’s held together by a jerrycan
The final product – a jerrycan computer
For now, simple yet safe recycling options have proven to be plentiful. AMP can now identify the components of a device that are still functional, instead of taking it apart into raw materials. Osseo-Asare: “When a fridge breaks down, the processor that pumps the gas around often still works, but is usually taken apart anyway. That’s a waste. We found a way to reuse the processor as a spraying machine for paint. If you manage to find valuable components and use them in a new way, that is a way of recycling that’s safe and much more efficient.”
Something good is happening
Such efficiency is requisite in making innovations successful, emphasizes Font. The workers are usually poor people, primarily concerned with their short term financial survival rather than long term health or environmental hazards. Osseo-Asare explains: “If you work in a dangerous environment and you’ve made a mental calculation that it is worth doing it anyway, you try to close your mind to the ill effects. Instead you think about maximizing your profits. Most people do not join AMP because it will improve their health, they are interested in the economic dimension.”
Consequently, to truly be successful, AMP will have to make sure that its innovations can compete with traditional ways of dismantling. Font agrees: “The E-cycle for example will only be used if the tool allows for a faster distraction of copper or for higher revenues than the usual burning.” The key for a successful solution is to take all aspects of the problem into account: the health and environmental part, whilst not neglecting the economic side.
Does that mean that absolutely safe recycling is achievable? “No”, is the realistic answer of Osseo-Asare. “There is always some risk involved, despite the best safety measures. It’s like driving a car: an accident can always happen, but you can mitigate the risk factors. That’s definitely possible in terms of e-waste too.”
To achieve that, AMP has a long way to go. “It is not a walk in the park, there is lots and lots of work that needs to be done”, says Osseo-Asare. “But when you see these guys exposing themselves to toxic risks and dying of cancer, you realize that it is imperative to make a change for them.” The future looks promising, believes AMP’s co-founder. “People worldwide are really starting to realize how much we are affecting the environment and that we all have a responsibility in changing that. Despite the bad narratives, something good is happening in Agbogbloshie.”