Ghana, Electronic Waste, and the Circular Economy

By Tim Perkin

As the demand for ICT increases worldwide, it is surprising how little is known about what happens to our electronic goods that are thrown away. E-waste is the surplus and broken electronic items that are discarded with no intent for reuse. This could range from phones, to laptops, to fridges, to cables and plug sockets. Whilst it is illegal to transport hazardous waste under EU legislation, e-waste from Euro-America is frequently being transported under the guise of ‘charitable donations’ or ‘second-hand goods’ to many countries in the global south.

Agbogbloshie, in the city of Accra, Ghana, has become a central hub for e-waste activity. Ghana particularly became a graveyard of electronic goods after the government implemented the ‘One Laptop Per Child’ policy in 2004, removing the import duty on used electronic goods in order to ‘bridge the digital divide’ and improve computer literacy. However as a result, it is estimated that between 300 to 600 40ft-long containers filled with electronic items arrive on Ghana’s doorstep every month, with a vast majority of them being dumped in Agbogbloshie. The site has become subject to numerous economic and social failures, and Agbogbloshie is said to now be one of the most toxic places on the planet. The rapid economic growth since the turn of the twentieth century that brought our planet greater access to knowledge and communication has simultaneously brought with it harmful complications of resource depletion and environmental pollution that is compromising the livelihoods of our global neighbours.

The circular economy is a powerful model that seeks changes within current economic, environmental and trade policies, consequently impacting on the lives and ecosystems around the world that are suffering the consequences of unsustainable economic growth. If we currently live in a linear economy of “take, use, dispose”, then a circular economy finds ways to limit the use of raw materials and energy not only by limiting the amount of waste that is produced, but also through the reuse and reappropriation of the resources that we have. What, then, can be learnt from Agbogbsloshie for trade and environmental policy-makers and campaigners who are fighting for a more sustainable economy?

  1. A Circular Economy is possible

Many social scientists and academics have argued that we must not see Agbogbloshie as just a dumpsite of economic decline with no human potential since this perpetuates unhelpful colonial depictions of Africa as being dark, dirty, and hopeless. Heather Agyepong argues that Agbogbloshie is actually a bustling economy full of creativity, commerce and innovation. Indeed, local inhabitants work tirelessly in Agbogbloshie, trading and ‘up-cycling’ old electronic items as well as burning off the plastic to salvage metal that they can sell to create a profit. The normalised narrative which claims that items should be disposed of after use is therefore being powerfully transcended in Agbogbloshie. The innovative talents of Agbogbloshie’s informal workers demonstrates to us that a ‘circular’ economy that continually reshapes, reimagines, and reuses items is possible and is completely within the grasp of human capability. It is time that we learn from our Ghanaian counterparts; how can we imaginatively and creatively re-engage with the items that we usually just throw away?

  1. Collaboration is essential

Whilst it is important to recognise and praise the creative capacities of Agbogbloshie’s residents, it must be made loud and clear that this environmental disaster is the outcome of multiple economic and political injustices. We cannot merely stand back and appreciate the ingenuity of Ghanaians whilst not challenging our own lifestyles and, more importantly, the decisions made by governments, international policy-makers, traders, and technology companies. A circular economy must be a collaborative effort that is adopted at all levels of our global political ordering. The crisis in Agbogbloshie is a result of a linear economy that ignores social and environmental responsibilities, and refuses to communicate or collaborate with those it detrimentally affects.

The time for a circular economics is now. Our global economy is failing ecosystems and the lives of millions of people. It is time that we all learn from the creative, innovate, and imaginative capacities of Agbogbloshie’s residents who see potential and a new life in the items that so many of us see as ‘waste’.

 


Tim Perkin studied an MA in Anthropology of the Global Economy between 2016-2017 where he particularly focused on unemployment and entrepreneurship. He is now working for an International Development consultancy firm that specialises in Monitoring & Evaluation. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A local uses his skills to fix a computer

 

The time for a circular economics is now. Our global economy is failing ecosystems and the lives of millions of people. It is time that we all learn from the creative, innovate, and imaginative capacities of Agbogbloshie’s residents who see potential and a new life in the items that so many of us see as ‘waste’.

 

 

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