Toxic transitions in the lifecycle externalities of a digital society: The complex afterlives of electronic waste in Ghana

This study examines the contours of electronic waste (“e-waste”) governance in Ghana, one of the top five importers of e-waste in the world, as well as the site of one of the most intensive e-waste scrapyards in the world, Agbogbloshie. At Agbogbloshie, despite the intentions of national Ghanaian regulations and hazardous waste laws, most e-waste is untreated or crudely processed via burning or acid baths. These practices release dioxins, furans, and heavy metals into the environment, invariably harming scrapyard workers, their families, and the greater urban community of Accra. However, the scrapyard also provides a critical source of livelihood for some of Ghana’s most poor, vulnerable, and unskilled migrants. The aim and objective of this study is to humanize the conundrums and challenges that e-waste invokes in places such as Ghana. Based on extensive and original field research—including expert interviews, community interviews with scrapyard workers and families, and naturalistic observation at waste sites and other parts of the e-waste supply chain—this study asks: What benefits has e-waste brought communities in Ghana? What risks has it created? And, critically, what policies need implemented to make e-waste more sustainable? It documents ten ostensible benefits of e-waste alongside ten very real and growing risks. Then, it identifies a concert of fifteen different policy recommendations as well as four research gaps. It concludes by emphasizing the duality of the e-waste phenomenon and e-waste policy, and by underscoring the political economy dynamics of e-waste activities and practices.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool

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