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Wire Strippers Bring Some Relief From Ghana’s Toxic Smoke

For years, poor Ghanaians have been burning old electronics in the open air to extract precious metals and sell them as scrap. But a new recycling center may mean the end of e-waste burning in Ghana.

On the shores of a trash-clogged lagoon in Ghana’s capital Accra, scrap dealers set gutted electronics ablaze. Fire melts the plastic that stands between the scrap dealers and precious metals like copper.

Black smoke belches from the Agbogbloshie neighborhood across the city. The lead levels in the soil around the site are off the charts, up to 100 times above normal. Another study tied the presence of industrial chemicals in women’s breast milk in Accra to pollution from Agbogbloshie.

For years, the burning of electronic waste in the neighborhood has continued unabated. Most of the men doing the burning are from Ghana’s impoverished north. Sumani Abdul Karim has been working here since 1998.

“The reason why they burn, they do not know how they will remove the wire and leave the copper," said Karim. "So normally that is why they gather it, go and put it down where they find fire from it, burn it and go on and weigh it.

But the burning may be coming to an end. Environmental group Green Advocacy Ghana recently opened a recycling center at Agbogbloshie. The center is equipped with industrial wire strippers to safely separate copper from plastic.

When it is fully operational, GreenAd’s executive director Yaw Amoyaw-Osei says it will put a stop to the burning.

“They know of the harm the burning practices is doing to them. So they were all eager to see some change," said Amoyaw-Osei. "They could not stop because they thought it was just a matter of livelihood, they needed to survive. But with this facility they realized there is no justification to continue burning and harm themselves.”

Many of the scrap dealers at Agbogbloshie have grown cynical about the prospects of change coming to the bare windswept plain. Some of the young men who man the fires have turned against the recycling center, fearing it will harm their livelihood, Karim says.

Greater Accra Scrap Dealer’s Association chairman Abdul Rahaman Abdulai says many organizations have come to the scrap yard over the years, promising to help. Few have delivered on their promises, but this recycling center may actually work, he says.

"We cannot hide the burning, because first of all, we did not have the machines, but now we have the machines so that we stop burning so that things will go fine for us,” said Abdulai.

On a Monday afternoon, black smoke was still billowing up into the air, across the lagoon and towards Accra’s downtown. The recycling center is not fully operational yet, and lacks wire strippers for smaller diameter cables.
Ameyaw-Osei says more equipment and personnel are on their way. Until then, burning continues.