Six myths about electronic waste in Agbogbloshie, Ghana

The documentary Welcome to Sodom gets most of its facts wrong about the so-called "largest electronic waste dump in the world."

Still from Welcome to Sodom.

Agbogbloshie is an urban area in Ghana’s capital Accra, housing a vegetable market, a scrap metal yard, a large slum, an industrial area, and a household waste dump. As researchers, we know that Agbogbloshie is a thoroughly polluted place and the people working in the recycling trade are exposed to serious health and safety risks.

We also know that this trade generates much needed jobs for young men and contributes to an important repair and recycling culture.

This complexity is lost in the Western media. Media portrayals focus almost exclusively on Agbogbloshie as an electronic waste dump, drawing on the dramatic imagery of burning cables and tires for the extraction of copper, which forms only part of the activities of the scrap metal yard.

The latest in a long line of documentaries and publications to sensationalize Agbogbloshie is Welcome to Sodom, a 2018 documentary directed by Austrian filmmakers Florian Weigensamer and Christian Krönes. In its title, and in its portrayal of “this apocalyptic society,” the film perpetuates the tendency to mythologize a reality that needs no exaggeration. In the process, the film gets most of the relevant facts wrong.

Consider the logline—or opening statement—of the documentary:

Agbogbloshie, Accra is the largest electronic waste dump in the world. About 6,000 women, men and children live and work here. They call it “Sodom.” Every year about 250,000 tons of sorted out computers, smartphones, air conditions tanks and other devices from a faraway electrified and digitalized world end up here. Illegally. Cleverly interwoven, the destinies of the various protagonists unravel the complex story of this apocalyptic society. Their very personal inner voices allow a deep insight into life and work at this place—and of Sodom itself. And you can be sure—it will most probably be the final destination of the smartphone, the computer you buy today.

Still from Welcome to Sodom.

Let’s examine this statement, one sentence at a time:

“Agbogbloshie, Accra is the largest electronic waste dump in the world.”

  • The part of Agbogbloshie where electronic waste is dismantled is not an e-waste dump, but a scrap metal yard. All kinds of machinery and household equipment, cars, buses, bicycles, generators, air conditioners, computers, etc. are taken apart for scrap and spare parts.
  • The myth is often repeated that it is the largest e-waste dump in the world, despite the fact that there are many other sites in the world, actually specialized in e-waste, that are many times larger. For example, Giuyu, in China, employed at its peak 100,000 people and covered 52 square kilometers. The Agbogbloshie scrap metal yard occupies an area less than half a square kilometer! All scrap is brought in by the people who work there and who are organized by the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association.

‘They call it “Sodom”.’

  • “Sodom and Gomorra” is the name outsiders have given to Old Fadama, the slum in the Agbogbloshie area, which houses around 100,000 people. Western media have not been able to separate the scrap metal yard and the slum, even though they occupy very different functions and are separated by the Odaw river.

“About 6,000 women, men and children live and work here.”

  • The vast majority of people working in the scrap metal yard are young men and boys. People don’t live in the scrap metal yard; most of them live in Old Fadama.

“Every year about 250,000 tons of sorted out computers, smartphones, air conditions tanks and other devices from a faraway electrified and digitalized world end up here.”

  • There is no reliable estimate which comes close to suggesting that 250,000 tons per year of electronic waste ends up illegally at Agbogbloshie. The documentary actually shows how electronic waste is brought in by pushcarts and motorized tricycles. If 250,000 tons of illegally imported e-waste was brought into the scrap metal yard every year, this would amount to 35,000 computer monitors or 14,000 air conditioner units or 4 million mobile phones every day. Everyone spending a few days in Agbogbloshie knows that these numbers are absurd.
  • The most likely source for this estimate we could find, is from a 2011 report published by the Secretariat of the Basel Convention. The report estimated that in the period 2009–2011, five West African countries—Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria—imported a total of 250,000 tons of electronic waste each year.

“Cleverly interwoven, the destinies of the various protagonists unravel the complex story of this apocalyptic society.”

  • Calling Agbogbloshie an apocalyptic society suggests the vulnerabilities experienced by its inhabitants and workers are somehow uniquely appalling. They are not. The vulnerabilities experienced by the people of Agbogbloshie are terrible in and of themselves, but they are morally unbearable precisely because they are a normal part of the global economic system that sustains modern overconsumption. There are many slums in the world and even more small scrap metal yards where electronics and other equipment and machinery are dismantled with rudimentary tools, with resulting health and safety risks for the workers involved, including children.

“And you can be sure—it will most probably be the final destination of the smartphone, the computer you buy today.”

  • The mobile phone or computer you buy today will most probably not end up at Agbogbloshie. Here’s why: almost 50 million tons of electronic waste was produced in 2017. Research has shown that the main e-waste trade routes are not from high-income to low-income countries, but regional. Electronic waste is still being imported into Ghana, but the amounts are minimal when compared with the electronic waste generated in Ghana itself, as a result of its domestic consumption of electronics.

Myths don’t help

Still from Welcome to Sodom.

The myths about the Agbogbloshie e-waste situation have been busted before (for example, hereherehere, and here). While Welcome to Sodom is clearly well-intentioned—especially by lifting the profile of minorities in the context of poverty in Ghana—it is not well informed.

In fact, it is a good example of what Bennett called dramatization bias. Its images reinforce common cultural attitudes and values among an audience that has no opportunity to check the validity of the statements made in the documentary.

The uninformed statements made in the documentary, combined with imagery that doesn’t distinguish between the scrap metal yard, the slum, and the household waste dump next to the yard, presents an uncomplicated objectionable image of Agbogbloshie as an e-waste dump.

By portraying Agbogbloshie as an “apocalyptic society”, the film may even contribute to risks for those vulnerable people for whom it clearly seeks to generate sympathy: the Ghanaian authorities have shown in the past that they are not unwilling to use foreign media attention for “the largest e-waste dump in the world” as the justification to forcefully evict people from the slum.

By perpetuating these myths, the film is unlikely to help the people working there. The film also presents electronic waste as a “First World” problem, ignoring the fact that Ghanaians themselves consume large amounts of electronics, and that the repair and recycling of these electronics are not only an important economic activity, but also an important contribution to sustainable consumption in Ghana.

Electronic waste is a huge global problem; it is not a problem that stops by guilting some consumers in rich countries into stop buying new electronics every year. Ghana needs practical and maintainable electronic waste policies, which recognize the importance of the informal repair and recycling sector and secure the health and safety of the people involved in this trade.

Further Reading