Picturing the e-waste problem

This article was taken from Issue 77

“Basically, if you went through every dangerous chemical and every potential risk that you could expose yourself to, improper (and the improper bit is very important) e-waste recycling – in the way that it’s carried out in some of these situations – is going to expose you to all of them.” 

I’m talking to Margaret Bates, Professor of Sustainable Wastes Management at the University of Northampton, about Agbogbloshie, the suburb of Accra in Ghana that is the world’s largest e-waste dump. I’ve asked her what potential dangers the informal recyclers encounter there, and the list she’s come back with is very, very long. While workers risk physical injury by manually breaking up cast-off phones, televisions, computers and so on (usually without any protective equipment), the main concerns arise from the burning of plastics, often done to access valuable metals. “You’ve got metal exposure, heavy metals, which have neurotoxic effects, potential hereditary and developmental problems”, she continues. “And with plastic burning, we’re talking about relatively high levels of, and direct exposure to, dioxins. So, let’s say somebody is burning a bundle of cables, and they’re manipulating them as they’re burning them, all the fumes that are coming off, they’re breathing in. The active agent in Agent Orange, which was used in the Vietnam War, is a dioxin, and that’s the sort of thing that people are exposing themselves to.”