By Jacopo Ottaviani | Photography and design: Isacco Chiaf
Over 40 million tonnes of electric and electronic waste (also known as e-waste) are produced worldwide every year. That is boundless heaps of refrigerators, computers, television sets, ovens, telephones, air conditioning units, lamps, toasters and other electric and electronic devices, with a total weight equal to seven times that of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The greatest producers of e-waste per person are the United States and the European Union, while developing countries, such as China, are producing an ever-increasing amount. Only a small part of this waste – about 15.5% in 2014 – is recycled with methods that are efficient and environmentally safe.
The West African country of Ghana, currently undergoing intense economic growth, is an important centre for receiving, re-using, recovering and disposing of electronic waste. Accra, the capital, hosts a thriving second-hand market, a sprawling network of repair shops, and a range of activities which attempt to tap into the full potential of e-waste. And yet, it is also the location of an enormous and heavily polluted electronic waste dumpsite.
A European family deciding to buy a flat-screen TV. A government office disposing of its old printers. A school replacing the computers in its computer lab. A teenager switching his smartphone to a newer model. A non-profit renewing their IT equipment. All operations which – when multiplied by the actual amount – produce the millions of tonnes of electronic waste that flood the planet each year.
Many of these abandoned electric and electronic devices still have commercial value, some because they are still functioning and others because they contain valuable materials which can be recycled. This is why they are loaded onto containers, shipped from the ports of developed countries and sent to developing countries, like Ghana. Awaiting them at their destination is a widespread network of middlemen, dealers, repairmen and second-hand salesmen who choose the devices, test that they are operational and put the e-waste from rich countries back into circulation in the local economy.