Harnessing economy’s e-waste for sustained, ethical job creation


A rising middle class, rapid urbanisation, the ensuing change in taste and preference as well as an increased emphasis on digitisation has provided many advantages for day-to-day living, chief among them being improved standard of living, better healthcare provision and more convenience in the execution of many tasks.

On the other side of the spectrum, this has led to increasing environmental pollution, with the biggest culprit being waste coming from discarded electrical and electronic devices.

A very gloomy picture

Television sets, radio players, refrigerators, personal computers, microwave cookers among other gadgets serve a dual purpose of providing their primary function and also, serving as a status symbol.

With a rising middle class and comparatively more disposable income, the demand of these items continues to rise. Due to the rapid turnaround rate – as upgrades are seen annually or at shorter rates – and the rising cost of these items, more items are discarded in more affluent regions fueling demand for them in less affluent places.

Consequently, there is an influx of e-waste discarded in Europe, the U.S and parts of Asia, often destined for the shores of many African countries.

To put it in context, a United Nations Environment Report published in 2019 suggests that the world produces as much as 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) a year, with less than 20% of this formally recycled, as it is cheaper to export than to properly recycle.

The e-waste produced annually is worth over US$62.5 billion, more than the nominal GDP of 60% of countries. A further striking figure is that there is estimated to be 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of gold ore.

E-waste production has gone up some 21% over the last five years. More worrying, global e-waste production is projected to more than double, reaching 120 million tonnes per year by 2050 if current trends continue, according to a report by the UN E-Waste Coalition.

Hitherto, weak regulatory enforcement and porous borders have made Ghana an attractive destination for old and discarded electronic and electrical appliances mostly from the West. These appliances, in the best of scenarios have a short shelf-life and in most instances, are damaged beyond repair. With practically little to no value to consumers, these items are not left as monuments of failed craving. Imbedded in the devices are components with very high commercial value.

Agbogbloshie, like its counterpart in Nigeria – Olusosun, has garnered infamy as a renowned dumpsite, graveyard, crematory and crude recycling plant for e-waste. In order to obtain these components, primarily cables, burning, pouring of acid from batteries, which present an alarming public health concern bordering on epidemic-scale.

The informal recycling process releases substances such as mercury, brominated flame retardants, chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, freely into the environment – some into the air and others into the soil.

The direct health implications on the practitioners are well documented as carcinogenic elements, burns, respiratory, renal, cardiac and cerebral diseases are common place. Other components, especially thermoplastics block waterways, collect water which serves as breeding grounds for malaria-causing mosquitoes and increase incidents of flooding.

The adverse health implications are not limited to those who directly participate in the informal recycling of e-waste. With more than 80,000 people living in and around Agbogbloshie, these health risks are seeping into the local food chain.

Agbogbloshie is currently home to one of the largest food markets in Accra, where livestock roam freely and graze on the dumpsite. A report published in 2019 revealed “one egg hatched by a free-range chicken in Agbogbloshie exceeded European Food Safety Authority limits on chlorinated dioxins, which can cause cancer and damage the immune system, 220 times over.”

Then, there is the ever macabre subject of rapid global warming, with its effects seen in the increasingly erratic weather patterns in the country, which are adversely impacting the wider agricultural sector. The dilemma however, is that an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 people, mostly young men, who engage in the crude recycling process rely on it as their source of livelihood. It is evident that the status quo cannot remain; the substandard and harmful recycling of e-waste must stop but livelihoods must be protected.

Silver lining

Public expression of concern propelled multi-stakeholder engagement to address the issue. In 2016, the Hazardous and Electronic Waste Control and Management Act (Act 917) and the corresponding Legal Instrument (LI) on Hazardous and Electronic Waste Control and Management Regulations (LI 2250) were instituted.

These require producers and importers to register with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and pay a preemptive eco-tax for imported electronics, which finances the enforcement of the legal framework for e-waste management and the formalisation of informal actors.

In addition to this, the Government of Ghana, through the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI) and EPA in collaboration with the German government, through its development agencies GIZ and KfW have initiated a pilot project to provide innovative financing of sustainable e-waste recycling.

The ‘Environmentally Sound Recycling and Disposal of Electronic Waste in Ghana’ project is being rolled out in two phases, the first of which began in 2018 and is expected to run until 2021, with KfW providing €20 million in two equal installments for each phase.

It seeks to provide incentives to players in the formal and informal arms of e-waste management commensurate to prevailing market prices. This will also provide job-creation opportunities along the value chain, including logistic and will significantly minimise the stronghold that middlemen – who make multiples of what the collectors receive – have in the process.

The project purchases the waste items from the collectors at Satellite HandOver Centers (HOC), where formal recycling companies on the demand side – who are currently undergoing an audit by the EPA- will receive them through a competitive tendering process. The project will further incentivise the recycling companies to take up batteries, thermoplastics and cathode ray tubes, which currently have no market value but are very destructive to the environment,” she explained.

Concurrently, GIZ is working on the development of business models for formal recycling companies and training of recyclers. Furthermore, the project is testing a national recycling system under which sustainable disposal and recycling of e-waste will be financed through an e-waste fund. The fund is to receive finance from a statutory fee levied on import of new and used electronic and electrical equipment (EEE).

At a recent media engagement, stakeholders from MESTI, EPA and consulting partners – GOPA Infra, Ramboll, EAP Consults and Green Aid – revealed that since the first of July this year, the programme has successfully collected 30 tonnes of cables – aluminum, high grade copper, alloyed copper and steel – at the Satellite Hand-Over Center (HOC) situated at Agbogbloshie primarily from members of the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers’ Association.

The project places a high premium on transparency, as such, it places a scale and price listing so that collectors can see the weight and corresponding value of the items. Currently, the daily average stands at 0.36 tonnes of cables valued at GH¢4,117.

To minimize incidents of theft, he noted, new cables are discouraged. But instances where verifiable receipts are presented for the new cables, they are accepted with payments made using digital channels, primarily mobile money wallets. Construction of the central HOC is scheduled to begin in Accra in the first quarter of 2021.

The stakeholders are currently prioritising education and awareness of collectors, recyclers and members of the public, particularly on the hazards of improper recycling, the need to segregate waste for collection as well as the numerous job opportunities that abound.

Circular economy

The conversation surrounding e-waste management opens up the subject of recycling as there are many items which do not fall into that category, which are not easily biodegradable and must be recycled.

The world’s garbage crisis is predicted to grow exponentially in the coming decades as people become richer and increasingly move to urban areas. As at 2000, the 2.9 billion people living in cities (49% of the world’s population) were creating more than 3 million tonnes of solid waste – broken items, leftover food, paper – per day. By 2025, according to a World Bank study, it will be twice that — enough to fill a line of rubbish trucks 5,000 kilometres long every day.

A Circular Economy, in its basic definition, is one “aimed at eliminating waste by the continual use of resources.” It aims to design out waste by moving from a ‘take-make-use-dispose’ model to a‘re-use-recycle-re-use-recycle-re-use-recycle’ model in perpetuity.

Small-scale, largely informal, mostly under-funded recycling are the order of the day, deliberate efforts must be engaged to arrive at a structured circular economy system, which abounds with responsible economic potential.

Leave a Reply