Where your tech gadget goes to die

Discarded electronics from wealthy countries end up in places like Agbogbloshie, Ghana, home to a huge e-waste dump

Topics: Scientific American, tech, waste, Pollution, Gadgets, sustainability, Environment, ,

Where your tech gadget goes to die (Credit: ifong via Shutterstock)
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific AmericanAgbogbloshie, a neighborhood of Accra, Ghana, is where European gadgets go to die. Ghana imports some 237,000 tons of computers, cell phones, televisions and other electronics annually, mostly from Europe, making Agbogbloshie one of the largest e-waste dumps in Africa. It may already be the dirtiest. The site has earned the dubious distinction of joining Chernobyl and the industrial hub of Noril’sk, Russia, on the Blacksmith Institute’s list of the world’s 10 most polluted places. Workers at Agbogbloshie burn insulated electrical cables to recover the valuable copper inside, releasing lead and other heavy metals in the process.

“Everybody wants a laptop, wants the modern devices,” Jack Caravanos, a professor at the City University of New York School of Public Health and a Blacksmith technical adviser, said during a press conference last November. “Stopping e-waste is proving very complicated and difficult.”

The Blacksmith Institute, along with Green Cross Switzerland, compiled the new rankings after surveying more than 2,000 sites in 49 countries. The organizations estimate that toxic pollution threatens the health of more than 200 million people in the developing world.

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Several places that appeared on an earlier list, compiled in 2006, have now dropped off, thanks to cleanup efforts. In Haina, Dominican Republic, heavily lead-contaminated soil at a battery recycling center has been buried in a specialized landfill, which Blacksmith hailed as the greatest “success story” among the sites flagged in 2006. China and India have also disappeared from the top 10. The Chinese government shut down about 1,800 polluting factories in Linfen, and India has implemented a program to assess and remediate contaminated sites across the country.

Although none of the sites now listed are in the U.S., Japan or western Europe, much of the pollution stems from the lifestyles of wealthy countries, noted Stephan Robinson of Green Cross Switzerland. Some pollution comes from producing the raw materials for consumer goods. Tanneries in Bangladesh, for example, provide leather for Italian-made shoes sold in New York City or Zurich. And some pollution, as is the case in Agbogbloshie, comes from things that affluent nations no longer want.

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