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

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The environmental group Greenpeace wrote a report last year about Agbogbloshie, citing it as one of the world's major destinations for "e-waste." In a murky chain of events, the report said, Americans and Europeans give or throw away their used electronics, adding to what the United Nations has estimated is 20 million to 50 million tons of electronic waste generated each year. Many items are shipped to the developing world, often as donated goods meant to "bridge the digital divide."

But many are obsolete or broken, so they get taken to places such as Agbogbloshie, where soil samples, according to a Greenpeace scientist, contain high amounts of chemicals that are "highly toxic; some may affect children's developing reproductive systems, while others can affect brain development and the nervous system."

Passing a stall where a group of men were using rocks to beat apart computer hard drives, Simon and Mohammed arrived at 11:30 a.m. at a flat field flanked by worn soccer goalposts. In the distance in one direction was a neighborhood of shacks. In the other, a verdant area of apartment buildings and palm trees.

This was the burn site. Here, the scrap collectors bring piles of scavenged wiring stuffed into empty computer monitor frames -- useful buckets. They burn the wires to rid the valuable copper of its plastic encasing.

One teen in swim trunks dumped his loot near a small flame and then stoked it with a stick. Acrid, choking smoke filled the air. Suddenly, an explosion boomed from a nearby bonfire, and a piece of flaming computer flew through the air. Everyone laughed.

No one was wearing a mask or gloves -- some did not wear shoes -- though the smoke, to a visitor, almost immediately induced nausea and a headache.

"It smells," Simon said of the smoke. "But I'm used to the system. So I manage to control my breathing."

He and Mohammed wandered back to where the men were breaking apart computers with rocks and tossing aside scraps that held no interest. Simon pulled a screwdriver from his pant pocket and began removing screws from the scraps and dumping them in his paint can.

Nearby was a heap of used oil filters, bags marked "USA," and equipment stamped with names such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell, a company that recently said it had banned the export of broken products.

One black computer monitor was marked with the words "Fulcrum Consulting," a British firm, and a London phone number. A team of Canadian journalism students who visited Agbogbloshie this year found a Northrop Grumman hard drive containing information on federal U.S. security contracts, the Canadian Broadcasting Center reported.

To Simon, that is all a world away.

"My main priority is to go back to school," he said.

Does he think that will happen soon?

"No, I don't think so," he said. It was 12:30 p.m., and he had six more hours of work ahead. "I'll be back here tomorrow."


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