Time Zones: Scavenging Hazardous 'E-Waste' at a Ghanaian Scrap Yard

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 16, 2009

ACCRA, Ghana -- Simon Emmanuel, 11, reported for work at 9 a.m., to a scene that looked like something out of the apocalypse.

Surrounding the boy was a vast expanse of debris: rusted corpses of bicycles, dismembered car engines and skeletons of computers. Beneath his lace-less shoes were glittering shards of plastic and glass layered over mud of a black, unearthly hue. A cloud of smoke rose in the distance, dark against a hot white sky.

"I work with the metals and the copper," Simon said simply, reaching into a paint can hanging from his forearm to pull out a stereo-speaker part attached to a long string. He pointed to a small section that might have value: a steel ring around its base.

Simon spends every day at this place, a scrap yard at the impossibly teeming Agbogbloshie market in Ghana's capital, mining -- along with hundreds of men and boys -- for metal wires and parts that can be re-sold and burning the plastic that encases them. Hour after hour, their clanking tools pound apart computers and video game consoles that were discarded in the United States and Europe and shipped here to rot.

Agbogbloshie is one hotspot in a growing mountain of hazardous electronic waste, according to environmentalists, who have adopted the issue as a clarion call for the information age. The site is also a stark example of the West's continued abuse of Africa, critics say: The rich world not only extracts resources from the continent, it also uses it as a trash bin.

To Simon, a sweet boy in a grimy T-shirt and jeans, it is a day's work. By 10:45 a.m., he was striding with a friend, Mohammed Musa, past stalls where men weigh and buy the collected metals. One was adorned with a poster of Michael Jackson. Another bore a poster of President Obama, who had visited this city a few days before.

Simon dropped to his hands and knees near a mound of dirt and trash. He began sweeping the speaker part across sawdust on the ground. Its steel ring was not just a potential source of income, but also a tool: It was magnetic and, therefore, a metal detector.

"Copper," Simon pronounced, holding up a scrap of plastic-encased wiring, which sells for about $1.50 a pound. Mohammed clutched a small plate of brass, extracted from a power adapter he had ripped apart.

Moving on, Simon dragged the speaker part on the ground behind him, like a toddler pulling a toy car. Mohammed, a head taller than Simon, led the way. He said he did not know his age.

Both migrated with relatives from Ghana's impoverished north, like many boys at the scrap yard. Simon said his father, a vendor at a market, first brought him to Agbogbloshie a year ago. The idea was to save money so they could return to the north and pay for Simon's school uniform. Simon said he had saved about $25.

Asked whether he liked his work, Simon gave a quick nod. Most people at the scrap yard are nice, he said, though bigger boys have beaten him up and stolen his bounty.

"I do wish I could go to school," he said.

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