This week on the BBC World Service, a radio programme featured interviews with kids scavenging scrap copper and iron from broken computers, illegally imported from Western countries and dumped at the Agbobloshie waste site near Accra, in Ghana. On 5th August, an accompanying article by BBC West Africa correspondent Will Ross was posted, on the same theme.
Ghanaian kids were interviewed as they set fire to bundles of cable, then threw dirt on them to extinguish the acrid, toxic fires. They were looking for the copper to sell for scrap.
Greenpeace has taken the lead in researching the dumping of Western IT equipment in Ghana. Their researchers have taken soil samples from the Accra scrap market, finding high concentrations of such dangerous contaminants as lead, phlalates and dioxin.
The broken computers are landed in containers at the port of Tema: in the period of research, containers were seen being landed from Holland and the UK. There are international laws banning the export of computer waste, but the companies who engage in this poisonous trade get round it by falsely labelling the shipments as usable second-hand equipment. In fact, says environmental journalist Mike Anane, about 90% of the discarded equipment is useless, broken junk.
For me, the most gutting thing about this story is that many of the dumped machines showed clear markings revealing their previous ownership: Richmond upon Thames College, Southampton City Council, Kent County Council, London Guildhall University. Organisations like this had better wake up and ask the companies on whom they depend for equipment end-of-life management just what the hell they are playing at.