It is 1100 hours Tuesday morning at Cable and Wireless, a community in Accra.
Joshua, Eric, and Benjamin, all teenagers, are busy dismantling an abandoned laser multifunctional printer at a neighbouring repair shop.
They are using sharp-edged stones to break apart the printer in search of metals, bolts, and nuts to play with.
While Joshua and Eric work on the main printer, Benjamin successfully removes a long rod from the cartridge toner.
Ben, a grade six pupil, inhales some of the darkish powder substance unknowingly as he hits the cartridge against the ground to check for more metals inside, with his fingers soiled with a darkish substance in the cartridge.
The crude method employed by these teenagers is not different from what many other young people who are often seen roaming in search of valuable metals from electrical and electronic equipment do.
They do the same for end-of-life appliances powered by electricity, battery and solar.
Also on the list is off-specification or new electrical electronic equipment sent for material recovery and recycling, or final disposal.
This equipment, which includes fridges, hairdryers, electric irons, microwaves, home theatre, televisions, kettle, camcorders, computer, and their accessories are burnt for the retrieval of valuable metals.
A whopping 97 per cent of the process of managing electronic waste (E-waste) in Ghana is done informally, releasing pollutants to contaminate soil, air, and groundwater, Dr Vincent Nartey Kyere, E-waste Expert at the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology, and Innovation (MESTI) says.
The government recently reclaimed Agbogbloshie, an area in Accra known to be the centre of scrap business for the development of a health facility.
But scrap dealers continue to engage in the burning of scraps on the fringes of the area at night.
This has been corroborated by Madam Florence Kuukyi, the Director of Environment at the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, during the International Day on Clean Air for Blue Skies in Accra.
Around 50 million tons of e-waste, is being thrown away each year according to the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy and the UN E-Waste Coalition report published this year by the United Nations.
That figure is projected to double by 2050.
“These scrap boys are only interested in the valuables, so often, they do not care about the effect of the retrieval method; its effects on them and the environment. They mostly burn,” Alhaji Mohammed Ali, President of the Scrap Dealers Association, says in an interview with the Ghana News Agency.
For instance, he explains that vehicle batteries are in high demand, but many firms interested in that commodity only buy those without sulfuric acid.
“So the boys are compelled to dispose of toxic chemicals like sulfuric acid into gutters, rivers, streams and open spaces,” he says.
These water bodies, particularly in urban centres, are used to cultivate vegetables such as carrots, lettuce, spring onions, and cabbage.
A baseline study on water-smart solutions in Accra found that between 50-90% of vegetables consumed in Accra are produced with wastewater mainly on small-scale irrigated lands from drains.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (2016) estimates that 800 million people practice urban farming worldwide.
A recent WHO and Ghana Health Services (GHS) multi-year project in Accra on multiple policy scenario analyses reveals that if air pollution levels are reduced to the WHO Air Quality Guidelines, about 1,800 annual premature deaths will be avoided.
Madam Comfort Kublenu, a Director at GHS, says air pollution is linked to the top 10 diseases like stroke, asthma, chronic cough and other cardiovascular diseases.
Voices of Dealers
Nana Mensah manages his US-based elder brother's used electronic appliances shop at Nyamekye, a suburb of Accra.
He says usually, about a quarter of used appliances that are shipped by his brother are faulty or not functioning.
“If we take delivery of electronic appliances, we reduce the price for our retailers from Northern, Central, Eastern, and Western Regions on condition that any appliance picked cannot be turned on.
Once you buy, the transaction is complete and cannot be returned to us should you find out later that it is faulty,” he says.
According to him, they are unable to sell all and are often compelled to give them out to scrap dealers to make way for new consignments.
“All these appliances have issues like cracks, faulty motherboard, fan unit, front panel, speaker unit, power adapter and knobs,” he says.
Three meters away from Nana's shop is Kweku Amankwah, an electrical and electronic appliance repairer, who owns a 12-foot kiosk full of used appliances.
He says most of the items brought to him are faulty appliances.
“Some of these have been repaired more than twice. What I will do now to ‘condemn' them is to keep some components and discard the rest,” Amankwah, who has 11 years of experience in repairs of used appliances, says.
According to him, the majority of the appliances cannot function again because the non-functioning parts are not accessible on the local market.
He, therefore, offloads them to scrap dealers.
Evans Kankam, Director of Elite Appliances, dealers in used laptops and mobile phones, insists used appliances are good due to their affordability.
He says there are people who specifically import damaged appliances to just retrieve the parts.
Dr Kyere says there are more than 1,000 different chemicals in the e-waste streams categorised as “metals of concern”.
They include mercury, beryllium, indium, lead, cadmium, arsenic and antimony.
Minerals like gold, silver, palladium, iron and platinum are also found in e-waste, usually in components such as used batteries, switches, motherboards and cables.
“There is so much money to be made in the scrap business but it has serious environmental problems,” Dr Sampson Atiemo, Executive Chairman, of Mountain Research Institute, tells the GNA.
Elevated levels of the toxic metals defy goals one and three of the Africa Union's Agenda 2063. That is, they represent a momentous threat to the quality of life and well-being of all citizens, as well as impede living resources and ecological systems because of their increased discharge, poisonous nature, and other adverse effects on the environment.
Laws, remedial measures and challenges
As part of efforts to assist Ghana in reversing this growing threat of being engulfed in e-waste, the German Development Agency, GIZ, is supporting the country to build an e-waste Recycling Facility to turn electrical and electronic waste materials into final products in an environmentally sound way.
As part of the GIZ initiative, Agbogboshie is being redeveloped and scrap dealers are being trained on how to handle e-waste.
The support ties in with the Hazardous and Electronic Waste Control and Management Act which seeks to provide for the control, management and disposal of hazardous waste, electrical and electronic waste and related purposes.
The Act makes provision for the collection of levies known as eco levies charged on electronic materials by originating countries and part of the proceeds given to the countries of destination for proper disposal of the materials after use.
At the GIZ-funded collection Centre at Agbogboshie, the GNA learns that business is super slow.
“If I open the container you will see some batteries and plastics that people from abroad and China have come to see but they say they cannot use it for anything,” a source at the Centre said.
Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is implementing a Global Environmental Facility-funded project to develop a value chain for the e-waste sector, including collection to recycling.
Mr Larry Kotoe, a Deputy Director at EPA in charge of the Project, explains that the initiative will improve collection, transportation, and safe disposal/recycling as well as education for between 6,300 – 9,600 informal sector workers.
“The system this project will establish includes collection centres at vantage areas and once the goods are received, they will be transferred to another facility for either recycling if possible in-country or auctioned to an accredited recycler,” he says.
Mr Kotoe states that under the new scheme, the EPA will accredit collectors and incentivise them to retrieve electrical waste from households.
Environmental experts are of the view that focusing on recycling as a solution will open the country's doors to more e-waste.
Mr Samual Zan Akologo, a development environmentalist, says “Prevention is better than to cure,” saying recycling is good but an expensive venture.
“We have not been able to deal with the existing challenge of e-waste in the system. I think we should focus on that and develop a system for domestic waste,” he says.
Mr Akologo says apart from Ghanaian residents who collect waste and ship it into the country, some developed countries through some organizations under the guise of humanitarian gesture ship e-waste to Ghana.
E-waste in developed countries is either legally or illegally shipped to developing countries under the disguise of slightly used e-waste.
About 150,000 tons of second-hand electronics a year is imported to Ghana according to a 2011 study coordinated under the Basel Convention, an international treaty that since 1989 has forbidden developed nations from carrying out unauthorized dumping of e-waste in less developed countries.
The Energy Commission's 2005 to 2020 report on the enforcement of energy efficiency legislative instrument shows that the top 10 countries exporting used fridges into the country are the United Kingdom, which accounts for 21.8%, Denmark,20 per cent, Belgium 12.1%, the United States 10.8 per cent, and Finland 9.7%.
In real figures, it has reduced from over 400,000 to about 7000.
Mr Kofi Agyarko, the Director of Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency and Climate Change at the Energy Commission, tells the GNA that the trend of the influx of cooling appliances has dipped since the enforcement of minimum energy performance standards (MEPS).
He says a total of 583 GWh of electricity and a total of 308.9 kilotons of CO2eq have been saved from 2005 to 2020, as a result of the enforcement of the standards.
Madam Birgit la Cour Madsen, Immediate-past Deputy Head of Mission at the Danish Embassy in Accra, while commending the Energy Commission, says the report shows that regulation and enforcement works.
She says although Denmark's share in the e-waste imported to Ghana is minimal, the country is taking more steps towards ensuring that e-waste into Ghana is further reduced.
“In Denmark, we are striving to do better. Nationally, we have banned e-waste, we control export and are championing initiatives together with the European Union,” she says.
Practically, more than 400,000 waste fridges/cooling appliances previously imported have been reduced to about 7,000.
This has been achieved through legislation and enforcement.
But the three teenagers and hundreds more continue to endanger their lives playing with e-waste materials, with the larger population suffering from the pollution of the environment. The dilemma is, will an outright ban be the right approach to deal with e-waste with gains made in the ban on cooling appliances?