Informal urban mining in Accra

The e-waste economy has become more geographically extensive and diverse. Many cities in Africa have emerged as major hubs for informal e-waste dumping and recycling. Often viewed merely as a health hazard, informal urban mining of valuable metals from used electronics has rarely been considered for the interactions it brings about between local and global actors, and consequently the spatial oppositions it calls into question, such as city/mine, consumption/production, waste/resource.

Published in Africa Today, a recent article by Richard J.Grant and Martin Oteng-Ababio looks at the urban dimension of e-waste recycling in Accra, Ghana. Urban mining, they advocate, is an important concept for “understanding Accra’s place within the global political economy and for creating and implementing policies for improving the livelihoods of informal e-waste workers in Ghana and elsewhere” (p:1).

The authors specifically look at the case of Agbogbloshie, an informal settlement in the heart of Accra that has become well-known as a major hub for e-waste dumping and recycling. If Agbogbloshie is the main processing site, the authors show how it has expanded to secondary sites in Accra and other cities.

Urban mining has thus become a locally important source of employment, with 4,500 to 6,000 individuals directly employed in Accra, and around 30,000 operating around broader e-waste chain of activities (Prakash et al, 2010). According to other authors, Ghanaian e-waste activities generate US$105–268 million annually and sustain the livelihoods of at least 200,000 people T

The article also highlights the global connections the e-waste recycling sites have with large companies and other countries — Ghana imports used electronic devices from 147 countries, as well as how urban mining sites in Africa have become crucial to the functioning of the global industry of e-waste processing. Some highly valuable materials are actually now “more present on the surface than below the surface” (p:6).

Informal workers thus participate in globalizing informal economic activities of waste, since most African countries ban all scrap metal exports, regarding e-trash as a toxic export. “Much e-waste and e-scrap trade is invisible because it is excluded from standard international trade classifications,” according to the authors (p:5).

The authors highlight the health risks associated with urban mining activities: 40,000 to 250,000 people around Agbogboloshie face varying degrees of elevated environmental health risks (Blacksmith Institute 2013).

Grant and Oteng-Ababio note that since less than 10 percent of global e-waste is currently recycled there is great room for the development of “more sustainable e-waste processing activities, with upgrading potential for local recyclers and industries” (p:9), who mainly resort to manual sorting and dismantling of e-waste.

Article available from Africa TodayVolume 62, Number 4, Summer 2016 [sub required]

Image: Used PCBs, Agbogbloshie, by Fairphone (Flickr).




Publication Type Journal Article
Publisher Africa Today
Year 2016
Author(s) Richard J. Grant and Martin Oteng-Ababio
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