Cloud of Poison

As the past few days have been extremely eventful, I will divide it up into several posts this weekend, starting with the visit to the electronic waste site.

First however, I said in an earlier post that I’d return with more information on how the rainy season (which happened to be particularly bad this year, hello climate change?) has affected the slum. I think the pictures below summarize it pretty well – click to enlarge.

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Some parts have been affected so bad, is virtually impossible to get through a narrow street without sinking to your knees in a pool of garbage and mud. This seriously increases the risk of both malaria and cholera.

The E-Waste Site

Although I had seen pictures, I couldn’t really believe the scene when I saw it first-hand. I have attempted myself to capture in pictures the extent of waste present at the site (the rest of the pictures will appear in another post), but unfortunately (although lucky for you) the smell and heat can only be recorded by words.

We first visited the lagoon, which flows between Old Fadama and the e-waste site. Along the riverbank there is a blanket of trash which extends across the water thick enough for birds to stand on it. Frederick explained that the government had planned for the area to be a tourist attraction, where people could have a nice paddle on the river and enjoy the scenery. However, internal strife in northern Ghana led to the migration of people to Accra, where in failure of any other habitable zones, they settled in the slum. The government has blamed the residents for polluting the water, but the truth is that people from all around Accra dump their rubbish in the waters – this rubbish eventually piles up in the lagoon or flows into the sea (where it forms trash islands (!!!) along with garbage from other countries). As Frederick explains this, a man walks by and throws a large bin bag full of rubbish into the water. Frederick calls him over and threatens to report him to the police (who would fine the man 5 cedis – about £1) unless he picks it up. After a short heated argument, the man walks away but the bag remains.

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Left picture – a chicken scours for food. Right picture – a seagull sits on top of floating garbage.

We continue down the river towards the rising cloud of black smoke on the other side. The pungent smell of burnt plastic strengthens the further we go, and when we reach the origin of this poison cloud it is almost unbearable. I am amazed that people manage to live within a 50 meter radius of it.

Frederick guides us over to the other side, and while the other volunteers are understandably hesitant to move any closer, I insist that we push on towards the fire so that we can get a better look and experience the conditions of those working on the site. As we walk, a man passes by with a wheelbarrow full of wires, destined to the fire in order to retrieve the valuable copper. Noticing suspicious looks, Frederick advises me to stop about 40 meters away from the fire. I am told that a general paranoia by the residents of being evicted by the government means it’s best to keep my distance. Before we leave, I manage to discreetly (not really) snap off a couple of photos.

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Wasteland. From the background to the left, a toxic smoke screen heads straight into the settlement seen far away in the background to the right.

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On the other side of the river, a man searches through the waste for precious metals.

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In absence of any nearby vegetation, a goat chews on a Lipton teabag.

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Two men, one carrying a tyre and the other a box full of wires, head towards the fire.

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The fire and origin of toxic smoke, where people stand without protective gloves or masks, causing severe respiratory diseases and death at a young age.

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A toxic cloud heads over the river into the city.

Shocked by the rubbish, I feel even more motivated to find a solution to the problem. If only the government would recognize the people of Old Fadama in law, not only would they see increased tax revenue, but they could begin a sanitation program by dredging the water and collecting all recyclable material. Although there is some hope that the residents of Old Fadama will be recognized as more than squatters (having asked around, there seems to be a general perception that this is the case), internal pressure is too slow in persuading the government. The residents are crying out for external pressure by international organizations to speed things up, and they are right in doing so.

Meanwhile, on a more hopeful note, after noticing that water sachets were readily recycled but plastic bottles were not, I concluded that plastic bottles were not recycled for 3 main reasons:

• Recycling facilities are not widely available
• The renumeration for collecting the bottles is outweighed by the time and effort in collecting them
• The benefits of recycling are not widely known

The funny thing is, right next to Agbogbloshie is a large Pepsi factory, established only a few months ago. I thought to myself, if Pepsi provides a recycling facility, wouldn’t it lower their production cost of PET bottles, create employment for people working at the facility, earn some money for those collecting bottles and clean up the area? The time and effort in picking up bottles and carrying them to the recycling centers would be low, since empty plastic bottles are abundant and the factory is nearby.
Surely, someone must have thought of this before? I asked Lestowo, a man working with Projects Abroad, why nothing was happening in this respect. He confirmed it: people don’t have time to pressure government or companies into doing this, and even then, internal pressure doesn’t really move anything around here. With this in mind, one morning as I came in early for work, I decided to take a stroll to the Pepsi factory to see if I could get the number of someone working there. To my pleasant surprise, I received a visitors badge almost immediately and they introduced me to the quality control manager, Francis.

Francis responded enthusiastically to the idea and promised to take it up at the next manager’s meeting. I told him the benefits for Pepsi, for the community and for the government (who I am sure would back this project through subsidies or land), and offered free advertising in return for an express plan and time line for the implementation of the project. What kind of advertising you ask? That’s a secret. For now.

Although I’ll manage my expectations, I will continue to put pressure on Pepsi, and should they decline I’ll go to Coca-Cola. And if they refuse I’ll go to the original manufacturer. After all, as opposed to the Ghanaians living and working here, I have some time on my hands. Might as well use it to apply some well-needed external pressure.

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