From soot to gold: Finding opportunity among hardship in Africa's largest e-waste site

Published 3:39 PM ET, Thu February 25, 2021
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In Agbogbloshie, a district of Ghana's capital Accra, at least 5,000 informal scrap metal workers come each day to burn electric and electronic equipment, or e-waste, extracting precious and critical metals from the material. Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images
Fire has exposed these copper windings from old electronics. E-waste is defined as products with circuitry and a power supply or battery. The gamut of e-waste runs from toys and appliances to everyday home and office electronics, which end up at dump sites around the world when not properly recycled. Friedrich Stark/Alamy
It's estimated there is 100-times more gold in a metric ton of e-waste than in gold ore, according to the UN environment program, with more precious metals contained in discarded circuit boards like these. Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images
E-waste, along with other waste, carpets the ground in Agbogbloshie's scrapyard. The surrounding area is Ghana's largest informal settlement, known as Old Fadama. A 2011 Amnesty International report estimated as many as 79,000 people live there. Gioia Forster/picture alliance/Getty Images
Described by the UN-affiliated Global E-Waste Monitor (GEM) as a "well-organized scrapyard" -- not just a dumping ground -- the daily scrap burning in Agbogbloshie poses serious environmental and health risks to recyclers and nearby residents. Signs like these are posted to warn of the risks. Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images
Burning e-waste is the easiest way for people to get paid for salvaging metals. Yet one study found informal scrapyard workers earn just $2 to $5 a day. Maniglia Romano/Pacific Press/Alamy
Although many second-hand appliances could be refurbished and repurposed across the world, they are often categorized as e-waste and exported illegally disguised as scrap metal, according to the GEM report. Christian Thompson/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Globally, as much as 20% of all e-waste is exported. On the African continent, much of it comes here to Agbogbloshie; a 2011 Basel Convention report found that Ghana imported roughly 150,000 tons of e-waste per year. Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images
Discarded mobile phones may contain precious metals such as gold and copper. Initiatives to recycle phones even include the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games; in 2019, the organizing committee recycled 6.2 million mobile phones, among other small electronic devices -- extracting 32 kilograms of gold -- as part of its Tokyo 2020 Medal Project. Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images
The amount of e-waste from screens and monitors decreased by 1% since 2014, according to the GEM report. Boxy CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitors have been replaced by flatter, lighter screens, which decreases the weight. Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images
Copper, iron and gold contribute to the approximately $57 billion value of global e-waste that was generated in 2019. But only a fraction of the total e-waste is properly recycled, leaving billions of dollars' worth of untapped precious metals. Friedrich Stark/Alamy