At one of the many busy roadside shops in the capital, Accra, John Nuagbe displays the used, rusty and mostly broken electrical gadgets he recently imported from the USA.
Old TV sets, refrigerators, computers, fans, cookers – even blenders and electric irons. If it is used and electrical, it is likely he has one.
“Business is good, I just arrange with my business partners in the USA and the goods are shipped to me. They sell like hot cakes,” he explained.
The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2005 between 1.5 and 1.9 million tonnes of computers, TVs, VCRs, monitors, cell phones, and other electrical equipment were discarded in the USA.
In Ghana, with an annual per capita income of a little over US$600, these goods, which most people would never be able to afford new, are in demand.
“Our own people literally scavenge for these discarded items in Europe and America, package them and then ship them home,” said Adu Darkwa, the chief executive of the Ghana Standards Board. “They are dumped at the country’s ports and find their way… into many peoples’ homes.”
The trade is lucrative for the middle-men who source, ship and resell the goods, but Ghana’s government is concerned the ultimate cost of the trade is being passed on to the state.
Officials at the Ghana Energy Commission (GEC) say most if not all the products are energy inefficient, causing an unnecessary drain on the country’s scarce energy resources.
“The rate at which used gadgets are being imported, and their impact, is reaching crisis point,” GEC spokesperson Victor Owusu said.
The GEC estimates that a total ban on used refrigerator imports alone could yield an average energy saving of 550 kWh per refrigerator per year, and a monetary saving of over $35 per refrigerator per year.
Even more menacing is what happens to the gadgets once they get beyond repair.
In the heart of Accra – in an area called `Abgogbloshie’ – lies one of the most toxic and polluted sites in Ghana. This is where all the discarded electrical gadgets are dumped.
A group of boys aged 15-25 scavenges through the heaps of electronic waste gathering anything they deem useful, especially wiring, which contains copper. Thick black smoke billows from different parts of the site as the boys burn the electric wiring and cables in an attempt to retrieve the copper, which they can sell. In the process they inhale toxic smoke containing lead and cadmium, a carcinogen that damages lungs and kidneys.
“It’s like signing your death warrant,” said environmental campaigner George Ahadzie of the environmental group Green Earth.
Ahadzie is also worried about the emissions of chlorofluorocarbons from many of the old fridges – one of the greatest contributors to ozone depletion, which accelerates global warming and climate change.
The USA and the European Union are signatories to the 1989 Basel Convention, a 170-nation accord which was amended in 1995 into the Basel Ban, which prohibits hazardous waste shipments to poor countries. However, tonnes of old electric and electronic goods end up in developing countries, including Ghana, Ahadzie reckons.
Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it was now developing guidelines to regulate the import of used electrical goods.
The head of public affairs at the EPA, William Abaidoo, told IRIN the guidelines would serve as a standard for what “we want to have and receive as a country in terms of electronic waste”.
He said there was a proposal to form a Hazardous Waste Committee to look specifically at used electronic gadgets. The GEC will also pass legislation by the end of the year to ban the import of used refrigerators.