Electronics are one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world. Despite laws to the contrary, most of the world's e-waste is shipped to developing countries where environmental regulations are lax or non-existent. A new investigation shows how this puts humans and the environment in danger.
Representatives of the United Nation's StEP program recently collected samples of soil and water from the area around an informal e-waste salvage site in Ghana's capital city of Accra. The tests revealed the presence of lead, cadmium and other health-threatening pollutants over 50 times higher than risk-free levels.
Improper disposal and salvage techniques at the Agbogbloshie scrap metal site mean that children as young as six years old are allowed to work around open bonfires of circuitry, plastic and other leftover high-tech trash.
And even kids that aren't forced to work at the e-waste dump are still in danger: A produce market, a church headquarters and a soccer field are close neighbors to the site, and are likewise polluted to varying degrees. In soil around the school site alone, measurements of lead were 12 times higher and cadmium 2.5 times higher than the levels at which intervention is required.
"The sheer number of people engaged in informal recycling in the Agbogbloshie scrap yard makes it increasingly unthinkable politically to eject them from that location," said Ghana researcher Atiemo Sampson at this year's Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP-Initiative) Summer School. "The livelihood of many people now depends on the income generated by these activities at e-waste scrap yards. Therefore any solution must recognize their role and focus on improving health, safety and environmental standards."
A Ghanian government study this year reported that in 2009 the country imported some 215,000 tons of outdated electronics, 70% of which were used items. Of the 70%, some 15% were trash. And many of the usable products become e-waste relatively quickly due to their shorter lifespan compared to new items.
The report says the informal recycling sector does a disproportionate amount of harm to the environmental and human health of Ghanians and recommended further development of a legal framework for electronics importation and responsible processing.
One way to put a stop to dangerous informal recycling sites like the Agbogbloshie scrap metal site is to support responsible electronics recycling efforts here in America. Be sure to research your local electronics recycler to ensure that they are not shipping toxic waste to other countries where it will put people at risk.
Also check out the CrispGreen Guide to Responsible E-Waste Disposal.
Image Credit: U.S. Army Environmental Command