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Scavenging Hazardous 'E-Waste' for a Few Redeemables

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.

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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