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Agbogbloshie, the world's largest e-waste dump (wikipedia.org)
107 points by _0nac on March 3, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 51 comments



I've spent some time there and I can share a first-hand perspective.

It looks like a dump in the pictures, but it's not. It's an active scrapyard. No material stays in Agbogbloshie for very long. Electronics show up, are mined for raw materials in crude fashion, and then the raw material is sold. Unprofitable material like copper cable jackets are burned.

Some of the footage I shot is in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMwLUnd_ydI

The other thing about Agbogbloshie nobody talks about: encircling the scrapyard is a huge repair yard where people fix everything they possibly can. It's only the stuff that can't get fixed and resold that goes to the urban mine.


I've seen a fair bit of poverty in my travels around Africa and elsewhere, but I'm still rather astonished by how utterly and totally low-tech and unorganized this is: it's literally just a bunch of people scrabbling about heaps of garbage on an open field, only that garbage has been carted in from the other side of the world!

For example, you'd think it would be worth it for somebody to set up some sort of smelter where you could bring your cables to get the plastic melted off, but when labor is essentially free and the competition is Darwinian, it's unlikely any scavenger would pay for such a service when they could just sit around an open flame instead.

And for an even more Dantean version of this, Glawegger's Workingman's Death covers a Nigerian slaughterfield in Port Harcourt. (And yes, the footage is pretty damn disturbing.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukSAfBulphU

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workingman%27s_Death


Given the low tech nature, a lot of the 'value' could have already been extracted via any widespread method, and this is the byproduct of already processed recyclables being sold on.

I highly recommend the book Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter, who follows the global scrap trade.

Link to his site: http://shanghaiscrap.com/books/junkyard-planet/ Link to the book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Junkyard-Planet-Travels-Billion-Dollar...


You only see most primitive and dirty last stage. Showing anything before (fixing and reusing whole products) wouldnt be sexy enough.

Its like those tent city documentary movies, think Michael Moore.


This is something I can't get out of my head: as a tech user (and as an IT worker), I am an active part of the e-waste problem.

I always find it hard to relate to some tech enthusiasts that often appear to me like compulsive, irresponsible buyers.

I can't help but ask myself: can a culture shift within the IT community lead to raise awareness among the larger public?


When I saw the post on the fp of HN, my first reaction was "hey wait I know that name... ohh..ooohhh". (Disclaimer: Ghanaian here. Currently an SE in the US )

I think a culture shift in the IT community will definitely make the message loud, but the truth is that this dump comes from businesses who deal primarily with the average consumer, not the tech-savvy minority. And until the majority cares, nothing is going to change unfortunately. Every step in that direction helps though, by all means, we as a community need to be much more vocal about this (well, be concerned first of all)


"Early adopters" are a much smaller segment of the market, true, but they also buy a ton more stuff than regular people by definition. :)


Without seeing numbers, I would highly doubt that premise. Sure, the maybe a couple hundred thousand geeks will buy a few more laptops and phones, but the couple hundred million consumers will surely win by volume, no? (Strictly speaking US here)


Some impressive pictures from Kevin McElvaney:

http://www.derkevin.com/Agbogbloshie.html



Ok, so how can we make cleaning this mess up profitable?


First, it is already profitable depending on which mess you're talking about. I'm defining the mess as the glut of used electronics in the world. The scrape yards aren't burning things and employing people to simply burn things and spend money. They get money from the scrap.

Second, if we define the mess as the act of burning things to mine the valuable minerals within, we have those already too. Recycling in US is about a 5 Billion dollar industry[1]. Sure some of that gets exported, but much of it doesn't. We refine the materials here in a regulated, probably safe way.

Third, the issue is more around developing countries pushing their garbage to Africa. That is a complex solution. The producing country has to see it as a problem (their problem). They have to be willing to create infrastructure to process the e-waste. They also have to adjust their present manufacturing capabilities to use recycled goods rather than transform raw materials.

There might be a market solution for the third point. Maybe? A lot of that comes with time and maturity. The US polluted a lot. We didn't really start to care until the '70s. It then took twenty years to get cleaner air, ground and water. That's from an already advanced economy. Developing markets will not likely put the money into that while they try to get their people out of the muck (literally).

[1] http://inhabitat.com/study-finds-that-the-us-electronics-rec...


> The scrape yards aren't burning things and employing people to simply burn things and spend money. They get money from the scrap.

It sounds to me like they aren't employing anyone. They have a big scrap heap, and desperately poor individuals pick through it on their own accord hoping to scavenge some valuable metal they can sell.

To put it in terms startup types can relate to: The trash-pickers are independent entrepreneurs and the scrap yard is like Uber, facilitating their trade.


> The trash-pickers are independent entrepreneurs and the scrap yard is like Uber, facilitating their trade.

http://globalrec.org/2013/07/31/philippines-waste-pickers-fr...

Don't joke. Scrap pickers really do believe themselves to be independent entrepreneurs with an important job to do. You push on them, they push back. Its their way of life.


They should unionize and demand safer working conditions as a group.


> To put it in terms startup types can relate to: The trash-pickers are independent entrepreneurs and the scrap yard is like Uber, facilitating their trade.

I'm sorry, I laughed so hard :D. This goes straight to my quotes file under the heading "One-liners describing Uber", the third quote after the ones from here:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9132175


It already is profitable, but all the reports from Africa concentrate on last stage performed by most desperate clawing at scraps in the dumpster. Its African version of a homeless man collecting aluminium cans.


If you make cleaning it up profitable, then it will attract more waste. What you want is to stop sending e-waste to Ghana in the first place.


If they could recycle this waste into something useful and make a business out of it, I think we'd want to send more waste there. It's better to have it recycled in Ghana than have it not recycled at all. Their economy would also be happy.


I disagree. People/nations should clean up their own mess, without polluting the environment (of others) even further by shipping things back and forth.

My advice: keep your e-waste around as an investment. Once the mines have been depleted its worth will probably go up... On a more serious note: stop buying needless crap. Minimalism ftw.


> I disagree. People/nations should clean up their own mess, without polluting the environment (of others) even further by shipping things back and forth.

Preferably yes, but since the waste is already there, it's a good place for a pilot program which, if it turned out to be profitable, would no doubt be copied by other nations to save on shipping costs.

> My advice: keep your e-waste around as an investment. Once the mines have been depleted its worth will probably go up... On a more serious note: stop buying needless crap. Minimalism ftw.

I support this idea strongly.


That shouldn't be the first question you ask. Plenty of problems have market-based solutions. But some don't.

This is a matter of regulation and law enforcement.


It's not usually the first question I ask. There is, however, already a subthread discussing legal approach. But since HN has a lot of smart, business-minded people, I thought it would be worth discussing commercial options.


I'm inclined to agree. It's not exactly my cup of tea, but I've always admired businesses that are able to charge one company for removal, then sell those same goods to someone else.

My favorite (though fictional) example of this: http://wiki.lspace.org/mediawiki/Harry_King


These western descriptions of Agbogloshie are really becoming a farce. It's the scrap dump where African generate cars and old appliances go. It is not the repair hub. There are ZERO sea containers of Western e-junk showing up. NONE. The place handles less per day than the average e-waste processor in Indiana. The World Bank stats show that Accra has 4.5M residents, and the majority of households have had TV and computers for a decade. They buy used working electronics because the average income is under $3K. But it's obscene that environmentalists go to a dump and take pictures of kids and raise money and don't tell the truth about the waste origins and don't share any money with the kids. I'm going back at the end of the month. Just stop it people. (With all due respect, You too, Kyle). Your video says you saw no evidence of repair, it's the scrapyard it isn't where the repair is done and it isn't where the sea containers arrive.

And this has all been painstakingly documented in major reports!

http://www.basel.int/Portals/4/Basel%20Convention/docs/eWast...

http://www.basel.int/Portals/4/Basel%20Convention/docs/eWast...

And the original source of the statistic that it's the biggest e-waste dump in the world, junking 80%, made it up. Look!

http://retroworks.blogspot.com/2013/05/basel-action-network-...

This is environmental malpractice.


I have a cardboard box with a decade's worth of personal e waste. I see articles like this and wonder if I would better serve the world by simply putting it in the dumpster. It would likely pollute our ground water locally, but perhaps that's better than being burned in Ghana? What do HNers do with their e waste?


Yes, this is a terrible problem, but: what's the solution?


Government regulation and laws.

Really with pollution the incentive in capitalism is to just pollute, and not deal with waste properly. It is cheaper almost always and following regulations if they even exist usually eats into profit.

I used to work for an environmental engineering firm that had to do some site clean-ups in a previous career. Companies hate being forced to pay to clean up their messes, its one of the big incentives not to pollute, as that certainly eats into profits.

creating less waste is a good goal too (shaving weight from a phone your going to sell millions of saves a lot of resources) or as a consumer buying less means you'll throw away less (swap in an ssd for your hard drive to keep that computer another year..).

Computers and phones keep getting better and better (more energy efficient too), so there is a strong motivation to upgrade (although this is less stong then it used to be).


Yep, government regulation and laws. The question is: which government?

Normally one would expect that in the areas were this work is done, the local governments take care of environmental and work safety regulations and laws. But they don't - due to greed, corruption and whatever.

So should, for example, OECD countries forbid export of electric waste to non-OECD countries, to enforce proper disposal of hazardous materials and recycling? I don't have very clear answers to this, because there are obvious reasons both ways (do we want to exclude poor countries from the world markets?). But I think it is a good question.


At the very least, I'd say the governments where these are coming from and the government on Ghana(and other dump sites).

One solution is an unrealistically broad rule: If your product is found in the illegal waste dump, your company will be fined an enormous amount (to both cover properly recycling the product and health care for those who manage it).

It will be the responsibility of the Ghanaian government[1] to properly document and report this and the responsibility of the home nation of the business in question to enforce it.

Building with easily recyclable materials is still a very very hard problem, unfortunately. Most of us just don't feel it because the damage done is well abstracted from us

[1] The reality is that these companies will most likely bribe government officials to exclude them from the list of offenders, given that corruption is insanely high.


There are existig laws to prevent e-waste dumping -- most of the e-waste from the EU in Agbogbloshie was illegally exported.

http://www.euractiv.com/sustainability/new-law-seeks-limit-d...


Yes, in addition to laws and regulations, there needs to be enforcement, otherwise they do nothing.


>Each month, cargo containers arrive in Agbogbloshie, often illegally,

Corruption anywhere on the chain is a huge problem. Apparently my country (US) isn't supposed to allow wasted shiped there, but it is anyway. Presumably if this waste wasn't going to be let in at the destination then nobody would try to ship it over (at expense).

Its a good and hard question:

The expense of electronic recycling and disposal is high enough that its worth shipping it to a place that doesn't have the expense. You want countries to be able to compete on waste disposal, but when the definition of disposal is "pollution" its not really a level playing field.

This isn't an easy problem.

The US has the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which for significantly toxic stuff, follows stuff from creation to disposal.


If people would only stop buying stuff they don't need, but that seems to be the driving force of the modern consumer society.

The norm where I live seems to be to purchase new computers, smartphones, etc. every 6-24 months (phones more often compared to computers). Whereas the more frugal people I know mostly purchase new electronics when the old item has truly and utterly died without the possibility of repair.

But assuming that will not change in the near future it seems that selling refurbished electronics at cheaper prices as well as improving the manufacturing process to use less toxic materials, could help quite a bit.

An example of refurbished electronics I saw in the news the other day here in Denmark is http://www.brugteiphones.dk/ buying up old broken iphones, repairing and selling them, they seem to be growing pretty fast.


The norm where I live seems to be to purchase new computers, smartphones, etc. every 6-24 months (phones more often compared to computers).

While a computer can last a decade for most consumers, especially with the long support cycles of Windows and/or Linux' support for low-end hardware, phones are pretty much obsolete in no time: they don't get security updates, apps become unbearable (since their developers have the latest & greatest), etc.

Planned obsolescence.

This is one of the reasons that I argue that e.g. the EU should intervene. Phone manufactures and/or carriers should at the very least provide security updates for a reasonable period. Another option would be to make unlocked boot loaders mandatory, so that consumers can easily replace firmware.


The EU's WEEE is supposed to be the solution to this. It imposes requirements on manufacturers and distributors to take back discarded products: http://www.valpak.co.uk/compliance-services/weee

The actual implementation is a bit more fraught e.g. http://www.electriciansforums.co.uk/electrical-forum-general... (supposed to be free for domestic purposes and therefore "invisible", but not necessarily for commercial). Especially in a context of phasing out the easily disposable incandescent bulbs in favour of CCFL or LED which aren't so safe to landfill.

Once the products have been returned they're supposed to be recycled. No doubt some of them end up being shipped to Ghana even though this is not supposed to happen.

Ultimately the solution is longer-lasting less obsolete products, but that's "bad for the economy" when the economy is transaction-focused.


The people of the countries that violate agreements, or that don't ratify the agreements in the first place, voting their politicians out of power and replacing them with politicians who believe being a good citizen of the world is more important than making a quick profit or offloading problems on to other countries.

If voting doesn't work then bloody revolution could be an option.


Stricter laws on proper recycling?


Apparently only a fraction of the waste is recyclable, so if it isn't dumped there it may have to be dumped somewhere else...


Rubbish. Almost everything is recycleable. The cost of recycling almost everything at the moment is just massively lower than dumping it.


I'm going through an extremely frustrating experience at the moment in that I have a washing machine that's just died. It's only 3 years old and just out of warranty - other than the bearings that need replacing, it's in perfect health.

Naturally, I order the bearings I need and start taking the machine to bits. Low and behold, the tub, which can traditionally be split and bolted back together again is now sealed so you can't service it.

Now I have the choice of buying a whole new tub assembly (including drum and bearings), at £200, or just buying a whole new machine.

But really, I have little choice in the situation. A new machine won't cost much more but will come with a 3-5 year warranty. As a consumer, I only have one reasonable choice to make - but it's the one that's totally wasteful.


I ran into the same issue, and the solution that I found was to find a smaller appliance dealer and get a commercial washer/dryer without the coin acceptor installed. The price is a little bit higher (about 20%), but in my case the washer and dryer (made by Speed Queen) has a 5 year warranty on parts & labor, and 10 year on a few specific parts.

All of the big consumer brands spend a lot of engineering resources on planned failure. My understanding based on talking to one of the engineers that works on this for a major manufacturer is that something like 50% of certain lines, subjected to medium/high use will fail by design between 36-40 months.


I want to cry. The cost of a new one and the inability to fix the old one myself at a reasonable cost is pretty depressing. But the totally unnecessary consumption and waste so corporations can drive up their revenues should very much be criminal.


Exactly, we the consumers are not being tasked with paying for the cost of recoverable electronics. Car manufacturers have been made to improve the recyclability of cars and in the end the actual cost to the buyer has not risen much - and now at the end of a cars life the value is higher due to the easier and more efficient recycling of the materials.

Until we actually pay for the full cost of ownership, then we will continue to pollute. I'd love it if we also had to pay for the actual costs of our energy too - such as the costs that coal powered plants have on society.


> Until we actually pay for the full cost of ownership, then we will continue to pollute. I'd love it if we also had to pay for the actual costs of our energy too - such as the costs that coal powered plants have on society.

I'd love that. But I need to find a new way to argue for it, since most of the time I mention CO₂ emission tax, I get accused of being a bad man who wants fuel to be more expensive.


You mean higher, not lower?


Yes.


Four comprehensive studies have found that 85%, 87%, 91%, or 93% is reused. The sea containers go to another part of town, where the geeks and technicians are. Agbogbloshie is mostly managing used scrap (cars, appliances, electronics) generated by the 4.5M inhabitants of Accra. Over half the households in Accra had television in 2003.

Links to Ghana specific studies here http://news.slashdot.org/story/14/06/21/231250/uk-man-senten...


There are homegrown solutions in the pipeline, I worked with a couple of guys on a project there:

http://accrareport.com/feature/agbogbloshie-a-local-solution...

http://accrareport.com/feature/e-waste-in-ghana-where-death-...


Africa is the shame of western society


You can downvote me, but that's the point. Western countries go on exploiting Africa for its space and its resources, and then can't handle their inhabitants migrations. A shame, what else.




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