The tragic cost of e-waste and new efforts to recycle it

We think a lot about where products come from when we buy them, less so about where they go when we’re finished. When we throw things away, this is “away”: mountains of garbage across acres of land, with tens of thousands of people shifting through it, in places like the African nation of Ghana.

In Ghana, e-waste exported by the West is mined for valuable metals and other materials.

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It is not the kind of image we see in the glossy advertisements enticing us to buy a new cell phone, laptop or TV, but they should be part of the picture, because this is where many of our electronics wind up.

It’s also home for Mohammed Awal, who supports his mother and four children by working, despite the risks of injury, in this city of waste in Ghana’s capital, Accra. This dangerous, difficult and dirty work is called “urban mining” – extracting something usable (like copper wiring) from the world’s discarded electronics.

Tearing apart e-waste.

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They do it because there’s treasure here, recovered, in some cases, by sawing a monitor’s circuit board. Incredibly, there’s 100 times more gold in a ton of smartphones than in a ton of gold ore. But finding it comes with a real cost. It’s hazardous work, and safety equipment is not exactly standard.

Children as young as 10 toil and sometimes live amid this toxic garbage, desperate for a wasteful payday. “These places wouldn’t exist without the demand for the materials they extract,” said Muntaka Chasant, who has been documenting the lives of those living on the margins.

Kids work amid the toxic landfill.

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Abdullah Illias endures the sweltering heat to pluck out tiny pieces of copper, for which he might get three dollars.

Tiny strands of copper wiring, the product of “urban mining.”

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The UN figures we produce around 50 million tons of electronic waste (or “e-waste”) every year, and this is note what’s supposed to happen to it. Only 20 percent is formally recycled; the vast majority winds up in landfills, or is dealt with informally.

At this landfill, what cannot be pried out is often burned to extract minerals. Chasant said, “One of the ramifications of this is lead exposure among urban poor children.”

But he urges us to see this place with nuance – the reality is a murky, polluted gray because, Chasant said, “E-waste provides opportunities for upward social mobility.”

“You’re saying you can’t just look at this as all bad because this is creating jobs?” asked Doane.


“But this is also dangerous, polluting the environment?”

“We’ve been having this same conversation for more than a decade now, and absolutely nothing has changed,” Chasant said.

During the interview, someone nearby started yet another fire. “This is what people in Accra have been living with,” Chasant said.

A fire burns at the landfill as correspondent Seth Doane talks with photographer Muntaka Chasant.

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And not far away was the largest open food market in the city.

Anita Asamoah, an environmental chemist at Ghana’s Atomic Energy Commission, has seen the smoke wafting over homes and food markets, and she wondered whether those toxins were so pervasive that they were even getting into the breastmilk of mothers.

“When you burn, a lot of chemicals are released – poisonous chemicals,” she said.

What she found when she examined breast milk was PCBs. “These are poisonous substances which can result in death, which can result in diseases like cancer,” she said. “And infants are even more susceptible to these chemicals.

“I’m a mother myself, and I wouldn’t want to give poisonous substances to my baby,” said Asamoah.

These burdens are the consequence of consumption in a much richer West. Bas van Abel, a Dutch activist-turned-entrepreneur, declares the short life spans of products ending up in landfills, and argues producers need to consider a product’s “end of life” when designing it. “Right now we’re incentivized to throw away stuff, because it’s cheaper to buy a new one than actually having it repaired,” he said.

Van Abel’s investigations into mining practices led him to start a company called Fairphone. Its aim is to create a more sustainable phone and cut down on waste. “Unfortunately, phones and electronics are designed in a way that you can’t really reuse components in parts of it,” he said. “So, what happens is that this whole product, basically, goes into the oven and you burn it and you get minerals out of it. It’s a very stupid process. It’s kind of stupid to put something in an incinerator that [one] puts so much effort into making. Most of the footprint of a phone is in the making of it. So, the best thing is to keep it as long as possible.”

He likes his Fairphone to Lego, because of its removable, modular parts. The battery is not glued in, making it simple and inexpensive to recycle or replace. It’s the same for the camera lens and screen.

The founder of Fairphone says their smartphones, made with modular components are meant to be switched out and replaced, extends the life of the product and reduces e-waste.

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Fairphone, which just launched in the US and sells for up to $700 a piece, has half a million customers worldwide – proof of concept, they say. Americans on average upgrade their cell phone every two-and-a-half years; Fairphones are under warranty for five.

Van Abel said, “If you use your phone twice as long, you need to produce only half the amount of phones, and you have half the amount of electronic waste. It’s a very simple calculation.”

Imprecise methods of recycling produce more waste, which leeches into the earth. In Accra, pollutants and microplastics run into a nearby river and the ocean. On the beach, we found plastics that weren’t exactly micro. Fishermen told us how their nets tear because now their catch-of-the-day often includes e-waste, like refrigerators and laptops. “It shouldn’t be around the ocean,” one fisherman said. “Causes harm.”

Trash along the shore in Ghana.

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Vincent Kyere calls himself the “graduate scrap dealer.” He’s a PhD. who’s been studying this dump (and the old one nearby, known as Agbogbloshie) for more than a decade. “It’s your waste,” he said, “so don’t just ship your waste to us and tell us that, ‘It’s secondhand, we can use it.'”

Doane asked, “I think a lot of people will watch this and be upset, but also feel powerless. What can people, consumers a world away, do?”

“I believe strongly that those who are producing this, when they put these materials on their markets, they are responsible for the end-of-life,” Kyere replied.

“CBS News Sunday Morning” reached out to Apple, the largest mobile phone seller in the US. Apple did not make anyone available to talk with us for this story.

But Mark Newton, head of corporate sustainability at Samsung US, one of the largest electronics manufacturers in the world, thinks every party in the entire value chain has some responsibility.

We were invited to Samsung’s store in Palo Alto, California, where Newton said every product is designed with the ultimate end-of-life in mind.

Doane asked, “This doesn’t look like a place that’s encouraging me to hold onto my phone longer; it looks like some place that’s encouraging me to buy a new phone.”

“Well, of course we want to excite you with the newest technology,” Newton said. “But what’s cool now, we are making our highest-performing products with 20% recycled plastics, 20% recycled glass, 20% recycled metals.”

In the back of the store is the first stage of a recycling operation. Samsung takes back electronics of any brand.

Doane asked, “Samsung has recycling centers internationally, in something like 50 countries. But in Africa, the only one is in South Africa. Why not in Ghana? Nigeria? These places where we know the need really exists?”

“I think that we’re really leaning into that now,” Newton replied. “We’ve fairly recently recognized that and made a significant commitment to expand our collection network globally.”

But this recycling effort is largely self-policed ​​in the United States, and America – one of the largest generators of e-waste – has not ratified an international treaty that 191 other countries support.

Jim Puckett founded the Basel Action Network, a watchdog group that pushes for proper recycling. “The Basel Convention is the treaty that was supposed to deal with this phenomenon of hazardous waste suddenly flowing to developing countries,” Puckett said. “And there is a strong lobby that is happy to have no trade restrictions on waste. Once the rich countries realized, ‘Oh my God, we got a problem with hazardous waste,’ the price went up for properly managing it, and so the export trade takes off.”

Tons of hazardous waste is sent to the developing world, much of it getting through customs under the guidance of being “repairable.”

Why Ghana? “We have issues of compliance and enforcement,” said Dr. Kyere. He now runs a recycling initiative, Mountain Research Institute, at the dump site. This is a small project, but it is one possible solution. They buy cables to incentivize people not to burn them, thereby creating livelihoods. “Should I sit down and not eat, because if I burn, somebody will die?” asked Kyere. “If I don’t burn, I will also die. So, it wasn’t a question of, ‘Why don’t you close down the place?’ It was rather a question of, ‘How do you do this better?'”

Vincent Kyere incentivizes people to sell the electronic cables they salvage rather than burn them.

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Kyere’s group is now building a partnership with Fairphone. Bas van Abel began by focusing on the problems of mining these materials on the front end, and wound up realizing much more could be done to save what’s already been pulled from the Earth – mining the precious materials we’ve carelessly cast aside, and managing our garbage with less waste.

“The whole energy transition needs all these minerals that are found in mines,” van Abel said. “So, the best thing to do is sort of make sure that we can get recycled sources, so that we don’t get the minerals only from mines, but actually take it back from the products that we already use.”

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Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: Ed Givnish.

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