Have you ever wondered what happens to your old computers or cell phones after you threw them away? Photographer Kevin McElvaney takes us to the final destination of electronic waste and introduced us to those who are forced to live with our lethal trash.
Cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices are increasingly made to be discarded away. At the end of last year, the amount of electronic waste rose to a record 67 million tonnes worldwide. While only less than 8% of the e-waste is recycled, the rest ends up in landfills in poor and developing countries without proper management—leaching dangerous metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury into the surrounding soil and groundwater and directly harming the health of local people.
Photographer Kevin McElvaney documented this disastrous problem at one of the world’s biggest dumpsites, Agbogbloshie, in Ghana. Through his photographs and interviews with the locals, Kevin brought the issue into a much clearer perspective—translating statistics and numbers to real-life heartbreaking images of consequences of mindless consumerism. Below are the photographs from the series and written statements from Kevin.
Agbogbloshie is a wetland and former recreation area in Accra (Ghana), which is surrounded by a river that streams through a lagoon straight into the Atlantic Ocean. Before you enter the burning fields of Agbogbloshie, you will recognize the onion market. On one side you can buy cheap local fruits and vegetables and on the other side, you will see loads of manufacturers and scrap dealers. Go to these scrap dealers and you will see men sitting on broken TVs smashing their hammers and simple tools against any kind of car parts, machines, and electronic devices. Behind this area, huge fires and enormous clouds of smoke dominate the landscape. Here most of the people are youngsters between the age of 7 and 25, who start their day at sunrise and end their work at sunset. This is the place where I took the following pictures.
The 40.000 settlers themselves often call this place “Sodom and Gomorrah”.
As a result of illegal exportation and fake labeled donations (development aid), this old lagoon became one of the biggest e-waste dumpsites worldwide. Computers, Monitors, Refrigerators, HiFi-Systems, Video players and other electronic devices are stacked everywhere.
I spent 4 days in this area and met hundreds of young boys and girls. Most of them told me, that they come from the poor north, where many bad harvests in a row forced them to travel to this place to earn money – many times on their own without parents. Here they start to collect metal with magnets from old speakers, disassemble monitors and burn cables to get the copper out of it. Copper is some kind of gold in this place.
Injuries like sears, untreated wounds, lung problems, eye and back damages go side by side with chronic nausea, anorexia, heavy headaches, respiratory problems and almost everyone is suffering from insomnia. If you stand next to them, you can see that some of them have red eyes, shake themselves all the time, could not concentrate, scratch themselves and seem restless. Same happened to me after a few hours. This happens because the electronic devices are full of highly toxic chemicals and some unsuspected kids just inhale or touch them. You can see small bridges build with monitors, towers made out of keyboards and puddles filled with liquids, that pour out of old refrigerators (refrigerant). All these products are difficult and/ or expensive to dispose (or not able to recycle) and that’s one reason, why they end up here.
Some boys are careful and know about the risks, other ones don´t know and walk around in flip-flops, still, other ones know the consequences but don´t care anymore. One of those I met was Idris Zakarias (20). He just said: “What you do to get money, is what kills you…” and continued to poke with a stick in his fire, where he burnt cables, small electro engines and capacitors, which explode a few times while I was standing next to him. For him, this was everyday-life and deep scars in his face and arms the risk he has to take.
Another one was Mohammed Camara (20), he came from the Ivory Coast to Agbogbloshie and told me, that this was the place where he wants to be and why he traveled so far. He just arrived here a few days earlier and started his “career” by searching for tins between the food waste. I wondered why he was satisfied with this situation, but then he told me, that because of civil war struggles in his homeland he lost his mum, dad, and brother and decided to stay rather here than to fight and maybe die there.
All in all, I left this place with mixed feelings… I feel sorry for what happens there, how they have to live and what terrible stories they have to tell. But somehow it feels wrong to walk around there with a sad face because there are still kids playing and dancing around and tell you stories about their visions and plans in future. Most boys work together as a group and help each other like a family. Many of them try to forget the sad parts in their story and focus on their opportunities, which was wonderful to hear, but I had some facts in the back of my mind: Many of them can die from cancer in the next few years, because of the toxic environment and grow up without education.
Instead of working here for a few weeks to earn some money and leave the place – as they expect – they often fall into this vicious circle of Agbogbloshie. At the point where they have enough money, they often get sick and have to spend it on medicine, sleeping pills, marihuana, and food. To earn money, their only chance is to start the same work again and again, but in the end, they are not able to leave this place to start their dream… So this work seems wrong, but till today there is no alternative in this region. Burning cables and electronic-waste became a livelihood for many people there and it is expected, that the e-waste exports to Ghana will be doubled till 2020. On top, Agbogbloshie exists for more than 10 years now, so many kids grow up here and call this their home now. Agbogbloshie is an ethical, social-economic and environmental disaster – produced by the developed countries.
Kevin McElvaney is an independent photographer and artist based in Hamburg, Germany. Since the start of his career in 2014, he traveled and worked in more than fifty countries, always driven by his interest in environmental and humanitarian stories. His stories reached millions through National Geographic, The Guardian, Stern, The Atlantic, Vice, Wired, Al-Jazeera, and Der Spiegel. Kevin’s work has been exhibited in London, New York, San Francisco, Hamburg, Berlin, Edinburgh, Lyon, Milan, and Palermo.