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Reggie Yates spends week in Ghanaian toxic WEEE dump for new BBC documentary

BBC favourite Reggie Yates has shed a light on the issue of illegal electronic waste dumping by spending a week at a toxic waste dump in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, as part of his documentary series, ‘The Insider’.

The show sees Yates meet the ‘burner boys’ - young men who make a living by selling copper that they extract by burning electronic waste. In the process, they risk physical injury through the manual breaking up of electronics, as well as serious hereditary and developmental health problems caused by the inhalation of fumes from the burning of heavy metals.

The illegal dumping of hazardous electronic waste has long been a serious a global problem. A report released by the UNEP in 2015 estimated that between 60 and 90 per cent of the 41 million tonnes of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) produced each year is illegally traded or dumped, with the problem largely arising from companies within the EU and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) illegally exporting WEEE to non-OECD countries (such as those in Africa or Asia), where worker safety and environmental protections are less regulated. The illegal dumping of WEEE in particular is very common because it is notoriously difficult and costly to recycle.

Reggie Yates spends week in Ghanaian toxic WEEE dump for new BBC documentary

In the documentary, Yates is shown around the slums where the workers live and how they run their businesses, and he sees one of the workers go to a hospital appointment where the doctor warns of the seriously harmful effects caused by inhaling fumes from the burning of heavy metals.

The episode is very successful in showing the human side to a subject often characterised by technical wording and statistics; Yates’ personable, down-to-earth style enables him to relate to the workers extremely well and he presents their story with sensitivity, respect and occasional humour, and effectively communicates the issue to an audience often unaware of these practices.

Yates also makes the link between the workers’ plight and overconsumption and irresponsible disposal in the West very clear: one scene shows him pointing out items at the dump that come from British retailers such as Sainsbury’s and Curry’s.

This link is made even more explicit in one of the show's final scenes in which Yates meets Fred, a local politician who speaks out on behalf of the people of Agbogbloshie, who states unequivocally: “This e-waste issue is from the Western world. If you didn’t bring [the waste] then they wouldn’t do the work.

“They say, ‘we are going to give them a gift … we are donating waste’, and it’s not fair […] Look at the poverty aspect of it.”

He adds: “People have to recycle, but they have to do it in an economical and healthy way.”

Prevention as the best form of defence

Although the documentary makes for difficult watching, it is heartening to know that at least some action is being taken in the UK and Europe in order to encourage the reuse and recycling of WEEE and prevent it from being dumped in developing countries.

It was announced earlier this month that £665,000 of funding from the UK's Distributor Takeback Scheme (DTS) and the Compliance fee mechanism will be used to support community projects in the UK run by local authorities to promote and increase the reuse and recycling of WEEE.

Additionally, the first Urban Mine Data Knowledge Platform is set to launch this autumn as part of a project to create a centralised and harmonised data network to improve the management of WEEE, as well as end-of-life vehicles, batteries and mining wastes. 

Another method devised to target smartphone waste – which accounts for a large part of modern WEEE - is upgradable smartphones. Starting this month, customers of ethical smartphone company Fairphone will be able to purchase upgraded camera modules and slot them into their phones, keeping them up-to-date, extending their life, and precluding the need to replace the entire phone.

You can view the second episode of ‘The Insider’ – ‘A Week in a Toxic Waste Dump’ – on BBC iPlayer.

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