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E-Waste Scavenging

By Caity Varian

The global demand for electronic products continues to grow, while the lifespan of many of these products becomes shorter.  As a result, the amount of electronic waste being generated worldwide is vast and growing.  Electronic waste, often referred to as “e-waste,” is a type of waste consisting of any broken or unwanted electronic devices.

Estimates say, 20-50 million tons of e-waste are generated annually in the E waste 3.jpgworld.  E-waste contains numerous toxic chemicals and materials, including heavy metals, chlorinated compounds, phthalates, and flame retardants.  The recycling and disposal of electronics poses a substantial threat to the environment and to human health, imposing serious health risks onto those who live, work and play in locations where e-waste is dumped and informal recycling activities occur.

E-waste is transported internationally to developing countries where labor costs are low and few environmental regulations exist.  Ghana’s e-waste dump at Agbogbloshie is reported to be the biggest in Sub-Saharan Africa and one of the largest in the world, attracting the attention of international environmental groups, NGOs, researchers and journalists.  Ghana has an unregulated import regime for electronic waste, meaning e-waste can enter the country without detection.

Ghana’s pursuit of socio-economic growth has necessitated joining the information communication technology revolution, thus increasing the demand for electronic equipment, making e-waste recycling a survival industry.  The livelihood of many people living in Ghana depends on the income and resources generated from informal e-waste recycling activities.

In Ghana, e-waste is recycled in a crude way, primarily involving manual disassembly and open burning to isolate copper from plastics.  Children and young men using primitive tools perform the majority of the work without any sort of protective equipment or gear.  Children are especially vulnerable to chemical exposures associated with e-waste due to their changing physiology and rapid development.

It’s very common for children, especially young boys to work in the E waste 2.jpgAgbogbloshie scrap yards starting at age seven where they will earn approximately $2.50 per day.  Many parents discourage their kids from engaging in e-waste activities due to the severe health risks associated with such activities.  Others must have their kids work as e-waste scavengers in order to support their families.

Hazardous living conditions and poor sanitation make e-waste workers especially prone to poor health conditions.  Informal e-waste recycling can cause high rates of miscarriages, birth defects and cancer clusters among workers, as well as changes in thyroid function and cellular expression, increases in DNA damage, changes in temperament and behavior and decreased lung function.

The full social, environmental and health-related impacts of e-waste are just beginning to be fully realized and they need to be given more attention.  Increased transparency and responsibility must be demanded on the part of the producers in e-waste.

The problem must be addressed at all stages, including production, distribution, recycling and disposal.  This will require added environmental regulation and tighter controls on the transboundary movement of e-waste.  This will also require more effective regulations ensuring responsible disposal and recycling methods.

Many of our NGO partners are doing amazing work on the ground in Ghana, providing children and their families with the resources they need to live happy and healthy lives.  Organizations like Rural Communities Empowerment Center, Globe Aware and Plan International USA are working to increase access to healthcare, education, economy and create wealth in communities with very limited means.

Supporting these amazing NGOs is one way to help serve communities in Ghana that are deeply impacted by the informal disposal and recycling of e-waste.  Become a part of the solution and give a gift that will improve living conditions in Ghana.  Mentor at-risk rural child for one year.  Your donation will help to mentor a child in reading, math and science, allowing the child to gain confidence and increase their sense of self-worth.  Allow a child in rural Ghana to achieve computer literacy, granting resources and life skills to provide a better future. Send a child to school, keeping them in the classroom and out of the scrapyards.

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