Page last updated at 16:34 GMT, Tuesday, 5 August 2008 17:34 UK

Computers pile up in Ghana dump

A child running past burning cables at a computer dumpsite in Ghana (Copyright: Greenpeace)

By Will Ross
BBC West Africa correspondent

Have you ever wondered where old computers end up? China and India have been popular destinations, but in Ghana the piles of old computers are increasing every week even though the trade is illegal.

As we upgrade at an ever faster rate, campaigners are calling for action to prevent toxic, electronic or "e" waste being dumped on poor countries.

The United Nations believes we generate between 20m and 50m tonnes of e-waste around the world each year.

Agbobloshie dump site in Ghana's capital, Accra, is a computer graveyard. But PCs are not given a decent, safe burial - they are dumped on this expanding, toxic treasure trove.

Many of the well-known brands are there: Compaq, Dell, Gateway, Philips, Canon, Hewlett Packard.

 Ibrahim Adams
I'm looking in the computers for copper and iron which I can sell to pay the [school] fees
Ibrahim Adams

Labels give away the fact that many lived their useful lives in the UK: "Richmond upon Thames College", "Southampton City Council", "Kent County Council", are just a few.

They are dissected for any reusable parts like lenses from the disc drives and circuit boards, and with global scrap prices soaring, metals are in high demand.

Fifteen-year-old Ibrahim Adams picks up a rock and smashes an old computer screen to smithereens.

He then tears off the mesh behind the glass, and after a couple of minutes he is squashing the screen's metal casing under foot.

If he collects five of them he might be able to trade them in for about 20 cents (10p).

"My headmaster sent me home last week because I hadn't paid the school fees.

"I'm looking in the computers for copper and iron which I can sell to pay the fees," he tells me as his eyes dart around the dump in search of more treasure.

Moon boots

To gain an idea of how people in the rich countries sometimes provide inappropriate gifts, you only need to take a look at Ibrahim's footwear which he found abandoned on the same rubbish heap.

He is wearing a pair of red moon boots that once graced European ski resorts.

 Ibrahim Adams
Ibrahim needs the moon boots to walk over a carpet of smashed glass

No, it has not started snowing in steamy Ghana. But this seemingly out-of-place attire provides good protection as Ibrahim trudges through the toxic sludge, smashing screens in search of scrap.

He needs to raise the equivalent of around $80 before he can return to school. It will take him a few weeks but in the meantime he, his nine-year-old brother Dallad and the rest of the army of young workers in Agbobloshie are putting their health at risk.

In large areas of this dump the ground is no longer brown earth, it is a carpet of broken glass. But what is not so visible poses a greater danger.

Environmental campaign group Greenpeace took soil and water samples from the scrap market and found high concentrations of leads, phthalates or plastic softeners and dioxins that are known to promote cancer.

"Chemicals like lead are very dangerous especially for children. They affect the brain when it is developing and therefore cause a lower IQ when they grow up," Greenpeace's Kim Schoppink says.

"Other chemicals we found cause cancer or disrupt your hormone system."

Goal posts

Agbobloshie may well be leading in the competition to find 101 uses for an obsolete PC.

A game of football is under way in a clearing and upturned computers provide a seat for a bored goalkeeper.

My research shows that about 90% of the computers are just junk
Environmental journalist Mike Anane

PCs even provide rickety stepping stones over a toxic bog in one area of the rubbish dump.

As people tip-toe across the "crazy paving" of obsolete monitor casings, they balance bags of recyclable computer innards on their heads.

They are heading for the fires where bundles of computer cables are thrown.

Thick black smoke blows across the site seven days a week. In order to retrieve the valuable copper from the cables, the plastic coating is burnt off and old car tyres are thrown on to the flames to keep the fires burning.

You are fortunate that the internet does not provide you with a sense of smell because Agbobloshie is a real test for the nostrils.

In addition to the toxic e-waste, the discarded rubbish and the acrid smoke which blows over the suburb, it is also a huge open air toilet.

People work there seven days a week, taking showers after a brief visit, and the water runs black down the plug hole.

'Poisoning the poor'

In the port of Tema, environmental journalist Mike Anane watches as two more containers stacked with old computers are unloaded onto trucks.

One is from the UK and the other from Holland.

A computer with the name of a London university on it
Many of the dumped computers are of UK origin

There are international laws banning the export of computer waste but people are getting round this by labelling the shipments "usable second-hand goods".

"My research shows that about 90% of the computers are just junk. They just don't work. This is dumping."

"About 10% are put to good use the rest go straight to Agbobloshie dump site and other dumps around the country where they contaminate ground water, surface water, the rivers and the streams. And they all end up in the sea and that's where we get all the fish," he tells me.

Greenpeace is calling for an end to what it calls "poisoning the poor". It wants electronics manufacturers to stop using hazardous materials and to take responsibility for the whole lifecycle of their products.

But unless waste management policies are enforced, in our disposable age of frequent computer upgrades, this poisonous supply will not be drying up soon.

The next time you throw out an old PC you might want to find out if it is headed for a landfill site near your home or for Ghana where it could be crushed under Ibrahim's moon boots.

Country profile: Ghana
25 Jun 08 |  Country profiles
Gadget mountain's waste challenge
04 Jan 07 |  South East Wales

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