A Shadow Economy Lurks In An Electronics Graveyard Two decades ago, the region of Agbogbloshie in Ghana was a lush mangrove swamp. Now, reporter and photographer Yepoka Yeebo explains, it's a vast dump full of electronic waste and young scavengers.
NPR logo

A Shadow Economy Lurks In An Electronics Graveyard

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/374780916/374985616" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Shadow Economy Lurks In An Electronics Graveyard

A Shadow Economy Lurks In An Electronics Graveyard

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/374780916/374985616" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The average American produces an estimated 66 pounds of electronic waste every year. You can't compost it, so it's got to go somewhere, often in violation of the law - that means a dump in the developing world, like the region of Agbogbloshie in the West African nation of Ghana. Not so long ago, Agbogbloshie was a lush mangrove swamp.

In the current Atlantic, reporter Yepoka Yeebo describes what Agbogbloshie looks like today.

YEPOKA YEEBO: It looks like hell. It's this massive blackened field. And the first thing you notice is this pool of thick black smoke that burns. It's this choking smoke. And I sort of coughed and splattered my way through my first few minutes like right in the middle of the dump.

And it's dotted with these little hills of old electronics and scrap bites or piles of CPUs, heaps of car doors, stacks of old televisions, and hundreds of people work there.

RATH: And you describe this awful type of smoke that you're walking through there. What's burning?

YEEBO: It's mostly the boys, the sort of people who process the scrap, burning huge bundles of copper wire to strip the plastic off. And so they sort of - they get the bundle of copper wire or whatever else they're melting - sometimes they melt down old air-conditioners. They throw on a tire or the old insulation foam from old refrigerators, and they set that alight.

So what's really burning is the tire and the fires get big and hot and sometimes they change color. When it's copper they turn green. And it lets off all this smoke. And this melts down whatever's in the bundle. And so you see pools of aluminum. You see pools of like bits of melted plastic. And then they're left with these bundles. It's an incredibly inefficient way to process anything. And it's incredibly dangerous, too.

RATH: Tell us more about these trash pickers that you spent time with. You used the word boys. How old are these kids?

YEEBO: The boys I hung out with were 13 and 14. Kwesi was the older, slightly more experienced kid who knew everything about the way the scrap business worked in Agbogbloshie. And Inusa was sort of younger and slightly more naive. And during the week, these kids were both, like, regular school kids in spotless uniforms out of school down the road. And they came down to this place on evenings and weekends to just earn little bits of money to help pay their school fees or buy shoes.

RATH: Why are kids that young having to pay school fees?

YEEBO: Education is supposed to be free, but beyond the basic level, beyond primary school, it's not. And they don't have to pay school fees, they have to pay for lunches. They have to pay for exams. They have to pay for books. All these little sums of money add up.

And Kwesi wanted to join the army and Inusa wanted to join the air force. And in Ghana, the armed forces are incredibly prestigious, so there's a lot of competition to get in. And the only way they can get in is to finish school. And without paying their fees, that will never happen.

RATH: There's a lot of toxic stuff in electronic waste. And you also mention that the fires from things like plastic and other things - that can't be good. Can you talk about the health risks these kids face?

YEEBO: So there's the choking smoke. It's burning tires. It's thick and it's black and it's visible from, like, the main road, which is a good long walk away. There's also the fact that these are just open fires of bundles of metal.

So at one point in the story, I talk about sort of this explosion and this burning aerosol can flying through the air and landing on the ground near us. That could quite easily have hit someone.

I hung out at the sort of shed where both Kwesi and Inusa sell most of the scrap they pick up. And I watched as this tiny kid basically sliced his toe in half stepping on a piece of glass from what looked like a smashed TV screen. There are hazards all over the place.

And there are also environmental campaigners who say that the boys who've been there for a while are starting to die really young. So people tend to have respiratory problems, and they also say that some of the older boys are dying of cancer.

RATH: And how does this stuff, the electronic waste from the developed world, end up in this digital graveyard there?

YEEBO: A great deal of it is foreign. A great deal of it is stuff that was supposed to be formally recycled that sort of falls into a shady world of recycling companies that export the stuff to the Third World. And there've been a couple of prosecutions in the UK.

And so most of it, at least in the past, turned up in shipping containers at the port either disguised as secondhand electronics or hidden behind functional electronics or just sort of illegally shipped in. And it gets trucked into a place like this.

And a lot of it is also from the market district where there are sort of auto repair shops and places that sell motors and air conditioners. And when the stuff doesn't sell or it gets too old, it gets dumped back there where people can process it into metal.

RATH: Yepoka Yeebo is a reporter and photographer based in West Africa. Her feature about Ghana's urban mine ran in The Atlantic this week. Yepoka, thank you very much.

YEEBO: Thank you so much for having me.

RATH: And if you want to see some amazing photos Yepoka took in Agbogbloshie, check out our website, npr.org.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.