They are some of the most iconic photos in environmental journalism: young African men, often shirtless, standing over small fires fuelled by digital detritus imported from richer countries. The toxic smoke swirls around them and over Agbogbloshie, the roughly 20-acre scrap yard in the heart of Accra, Ghana, where these men live and work.
During the last decade, some of the world’s most respected media organizations have transformed Agbogbloshie into a symbol of what’s believed to be a growing crisis: the export—or dumping—of electronic waste from rich, developed countries into Africa. It’s a concise narrative that resonates strongly in a technology-obsessed world. There’s just one problem: The story is not that simple.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 85 percent of the e-waste dumped in Ghana and other parts of West Africa is produced in Ghana and West Africa. In other words, ending the export of used electronics from the wealthy developed world won’t end the burning in Agbogbloshie. The solution must come from West Africa itself and the people who depend upon e-waste to make a living.