A Digital Wasteland [PHOTOS]
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Located just outside the heart of Accra, Ghana, the Agbogbloshie slum is the poisoned by-product of the Western world’s digital fetish. It is the last stop for some of the estimated 50 million tons of electronic waste, or e-waste, disposed of each year. In Agbogbloshie, young Ghanaians rip apart e-waste, set it on fire to melt away the plastic casings, and salvage the exposed copper wires. Two-hundred-and-twenty pounds of wire can be sold for up to five Ghana cedis, equivalent to $3.35. In the process, the Ghanaians, many in their teens, are exposed to carcinogens like cadmium and lead. The chance to earn an income, however, proves too enticing to outweigh the potential risks of scrapping out a life in the slum.
Fifteen-year-old Santana Alhassan Suidu burns a bundle of cords to expose the precious copper wires inside.
Known as “Masters,” the middlemen of Agbogbloshie shuttle new shipments of electronic parts out to the slum’s charred fields, which border Korle Lagoon, one of the world’s most polluted bodies of water.
Suidu arrived in Agbogbloshie five years ago. Since then, he has only been able to visit his family in Northern Ghana once.
A “scrapper” ignites the carcasses of trashed electronics. Much of the refuse reaches Ghana’s shores as a result of poorly enforced e-waste laws in Western nations.
Scrappers like Mohammed Alhasen start fires by lighting insulation from discarded appliances. Protection against the blaze is limited to Alhasen’s well-worn shorts and open-toed sandals—a typical outfit for a scrapper.
Mohamed Suiad, right, waits with fellow Ghanaians for the next delivery of wire. “I know the fire is not good for our health,” Suiad told Accra-based newspaper Daily Guide, “but because of the money we get, we continue to stay here. We don’t like it, but we are working like that.”
In a shelter made of old refrigerators, insulation, and the cab of a truck, a group of scrappers seek refuge from the midday heat to sip water and pass around a joint. It’s a daily ritual that will likely continue into the foreseeable future for although e-waste regulation is improving, boatloads of discarded electronics continue to arrive on the shores of Ghana. Eventually, the waste meets its end in the fiery pits of Agbogbloshie, scarring the land and the lives of those that call the slum home.
This article originally appeared in Ethos, a student publication at the University of Oregon that receives funding and training as a member of the Campus Progress journalism network. The photography in this story by Michael Ciaglo won first place for magazine photography in the 2012 Collegiate Circle Awards from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.