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Meet The Children Who Live In Ghana’s Hellish Digital Dump

When we toss our unwanted electronics, we rarely think about where they end up. Now you won’t forget.

Meet The Children Who Live In Ghana’s Hellish Digital Dump
[All Photos: © Renée C. Byer]

Fifty years ago, the Korle Lagoon was a thriving fishery. Now, the former wetland outside Accra in Ghana is a place where old electronics go to die.

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As part of a book called Living on a Dollar a Day, photojournalist Renee C. Byer visited the e-waste dump–now part of a sprawling slum that locals call Sodom and Gomorrah, and one of the most polluted places in the world. There, she met the children who work trying to make a living from the metals they can extract from old computers and cell phones.

“They’re burning plastic to collect metal, and they’re using magnets to dig through this toxic waste to earn maybe a dollar or two a day,” says Byer. “I don’t think anyone really envisions this when they buy a computer.”

© Renée C. Byer

Nor do most people think of dumps like the one in Ghana when they drop off a laptop or phone for recycling. But recyclers don’t always recycle: Since labor costs and environmental laws make electronics expensive to process in a place like the U.S., companies can often make more money by selling old gadgets to waste traders who ship to Asia and Africa. The majority end up in China, followed by India, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin, and Liberia.

Read more about hellish Ghanian e-waste dumps here.

Many of those electronics are still working and sold for use. But for others–which might last a year or two after repairs, or just not turn on at all–it’s a quicker path to the dump. Others may end up there five or ten years later. The site in Ghana processes hundreds of tons of e-waste each month.

A handful of U.S. states have e-waste laws that require certification for recycling companies, and those certifications can help address the question of whether waste is ultimately handled responsibly. But managing the waste stream is an incredibly challenging problem, and even the certifications aren’t an absolute guarantee that electronic waste won’t ultimately end up in an unregulated dump. As people go through electronics faster and faster, the problem gets harder to solve: By 2017, the world may be producing around 65 million tons of e-waste every year.

© Renée C. Byer

The U.S. has yet to sign on to the Basel Convention, an international treaty that makes it illegal for rich countries to send hazardous waste to poorer countries unless the poorer country specifically consents. But even EU countries that have signed on still manage to get around the regulation and export e-waste anyway by changing how it’s labeled. Most of the e-waste at the Ghana dump originally came from Europe.

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Some say that the answer lies in helping countries like Ghana set up safer recycling facilities, rather than trying to stop exports of e-waste altogether, especially because old technology is valuable if it works and recycling is a source of jobs. “Instead of stopping the flow, we need to build the capacity to safely handle the waste,” says Scott Cassel, CEO and founder of the Product Stewardship Council. “We need to be working with top officials to make sure what we’re putting in place is working for everyone.”

At the moment, it isn’t working. “Right now, recycling facilities are being mismanaged, and putting people at risk, particularly young people,” says Cassel.

Byer wanted her photos to tell the stories of some of those young people, like Fati, an 8-year-old girl who works in the Accra dump even though she has malaria.

“I don’t think that anyone can envision this sort of prison of poison that children are working in to survive,” Byer says. “We really need to become more conscious to how we are dumping our electronic waste.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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