The world generates 2.1 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, with at least 33% of that not managed in an environmentally safe manner, according to the World Bank. This is projected to increase by 19% in Global North countries and by more than 40% in Global South countries by 2050 (Kaza et al. 2018). Further research by the World Bank shows that in 2016, the world generated 242 million tonnes of plastic waste, or 12% of all solid waste. At least 92% of all CO2 emissions come from the Global North.  

The issue of waste is a key challenge for two reasons: disposing of the waste that we generate is not easy and secondly, we are not giving the planet enough time to regenerate and reproduce the volume and variety of resources that we need to live on this planet. 

Sometimes, Global North countries post recycling figures that, upon further investigation, are clearly deceptive. For example, the European Union (EU) claims to be leading the world in cutting carbon emissions and will probably meet its promised target of 55% emissions reduction by 2030. However, these successes come in part from externalising the more hasardous parts of electronics (e-waste) disposal to the Global South. 

Men haggling over the cost of a pile of e-Waste in Agbobloshie, Ghana. Photo: Roland Ngam/RLS Southern Africa.

The Agbobloshie community in Greater Accra, Ghana, is a monument to the externalisation of the Global North’s Waste management to Africa. Agbobloshie is often described as the “the world’s largest e-waste dump”. 

This suburb is located on the banks of the Korle Lagoon of the Odaw River in the middle of Greater Accra. Agbobloshie was originally a formal market. However, the needs of the local community has long since outgrown the small space that was first built in the 1970s so that most vendors have spilled out onto the main street and other nearby open fields, including the now world-famous e-waste recyclers.

Agbobloshie is one long street with an elaborate labyrinth of side streets. On each side street, there are at least ten, fifteen people who spend all day hammering away at gadgets to prise away precious metals or pull motherboards and other components.

To the right of this street, a river runs through the suburb. This river has become a makeshift dumping site and one can see a mountain of trash from miles away, not just the e-waste that arrived there from the global north but also the tons of new trash that the recyclers themselves are creating every day. They make an effort to burn the trash but it is simply too big for them to deal with. The slow rotting piles stink to high heaven. This entire area is a metaphor and monument of man’s constant need to raid nature for cheap appliances. Built-in obsolescence means that things are not made to last. We keep tossing things away in order to buy shiny new ones – because there is no cost associated with creating unsustainable piles of trash. 

The Ghanaian government has adopted a fairly relaxed approach to accepting waste from foreign nations, which means that many countries send their used cellphones, laptops, air fryers, microwave ovens, etc. to Ghana. Many other African countries also receive large amounts of waste from Europe and America. Uganda and Cameroon for example receive a lot of second hand clothes and shoes. However, Ghana stands out due to the sheer volume of e-waste that arrive on its shores. 

Every day, at least twenty containers arrive in Agbloboshie, according to the recyclers who work there. The contents of the containers are sold to middlemen who in turn sell it to recyclers and recycling cooperatives by the kilo. Most of the recyclers come from northern Ghana and years of practice has trained them to look for different things. 

Men offloading a truck of waste in Agbobloshie. Photo: Roland Ngam/RLS Southern Africa.

Musa, who has been in Agbobloshie for more than a decade, explains the system as follows: “There are different types of recyclers here. There are those who are only after gold. There are those who only extract copper. Then you have those who just offload the containers and sell the e-waste per bag or kilo. Some just buy appliances that they strip down for parts.”

“Sometimes you find out that an appliance still works just fine but just needs one component from somewhere. You can remove the part from the one that is too far gone and fix the fairly good one and sell it for a good price. We get a lot of bikes here like that. Ghanaians love bikes a lot. So we buy broken bikes and fix the one that is fairly good.”

A bag of copper cables. The owners of this bag were very all smiles talking about how much they would get for it. Gold is also one of the precious metals that recyclers love here. Photo: Roland Ngam/RLS Southern Africa.

Plastic casings are typically dumped in the nearby lagoon or thrown on a bonfire.  

Agbobloshie’s recyclers are mostly men who work in co-operatives. Between them, a co-operative of ten boys can go through forty old PCs in one day. There are at least five hundred recycling groups around Agbloboshie. On the recycling street however, there is an ecosystem of deliverymen, mobile restaurants, daily savings agents and so on, who provide ancillary services to the workers. There is a little bit of everything. 

Most recyclers operate from the market, but some others have since moved on and opened recycling yards in other parts of the city. 

The government is currently trying to evict the Agbobloshie recyclers for a number of development projects. There are construction projects all over Accra and the Government wants to use the space to set up more upmarket suburbs and spaces. However, it is easier said than done because the site hosts tens of thousands of people who would need to be employed and/or housed elsewhere.  

Musa believes that the government is powerless to remove the recyclers from the market site. He argues that one of the reasons the government is going to go back on its decision to shut down Agbobloshie is the sheer number of recyclers who work there. 

The recyclers dump the waste that the cannot manage in this lagoon. Photo: Roland Ngam/RLS Southern Africa.

“The government can never remove us from here. They can make a lot of noise, but if they remove us form here, they have to put us somewhere. Right now, I do not think that they have a lot of money to do that”. 

“Look around! There are more than two thousand people who depend on this place to feed themselves every day. Do you think the government can feed all these people? If you end recycling here, you have to employ all these people. Can the government do that? They are always here when there are elections. They need us to win. If anything happens here, we will campaign against them.”

Although the people who work in Agbobloshie have made a success of it, one however still needs to question the rationality of hyperconsumerism and the constant destruction of nature just to feed our addiction to ‘stuff’. 

You can get even tractor engines in Agbobloshie! Photo: Roland Ngam/RLS Southern Africa.