Back in June, I wrote a note here about the recovery from a Ghana scrap market, by some researchers from PBS, of a disk drive containing information about US Government security contracts. A little later, I wrote another note about the problem of disposing of high-tech waste, and some state and local government programs to address it. Today’s Washington Post has an article about the Agbogbloshie market in Accra, Ghana – the same market where the disk drive was purchased. It sounds like a pretty grim place, not one we would think of as a suitable place for an 11-year-old to spend his time:
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.
Simon, who migrated with relatives from the relatively impoverished northern region of Ghana, has apparently been working at the scrap market for about a year. He works every day, sifting thorugh the trash to retrieve metal parts and wire that can be sold. He and his father hope that the scavenging work will allow him to save enough money to buy a school uniform and go back home to school. So far, he has managed to save about $25. Although much of the junk is from high-tech sources, the recycling methods are anything but:
He … 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.
The scavengers bring the wire they collect to a soccer field, which is used as a fire site, to burn the insulation off of pieces of copper wire. Much of this insulation gives off an unpleasant assortment of toxic fumes when it is burned; none of the workers, of course, has any protective equipment. Some don’t even have shoes.
Much of this E-junk ends up at Agbogbloshie because, owing to the environmental rules rich countries have, it is cheaper to load the rubbish on a ship and send it to Africa, than it is to dispose of it properly at its origin. As I have said before, this is an externality, a market failure: the costs of disposal, especially the environmental costs, are borne not by the users of the equipment, but by some of the world’s poorest people. As with other forms of pollution, some mechanism needs to be put in place to ensure the costs are borne by those who are in a position to do something about it.