At least a kilometre before reaching the Agbogbloshie e-waste site within Ghana’s capital city, Accra, you can already begin to smell the putrid, toxic fumes emerging from the area.

Agbogbloshie was once a beautiful and thriving wetland, a haven for a variety of small wildlife. Birding enthusiasts travelled here from all over the world to see the abundant birdlife in the sanctuary. An assortment of fish species could be found in its water bodies, the Densu River and Korle Lagoon, and small antelope such as duiker populated the lush grass and tree-covered surrounds.

“Agbogbloshie was once a beautiful and thriving wetland, a haven for wildlife.”

Ghana Ewaste Burning 26 03 2014
Much of the waste that finds its way to Agbogbloshie is set alight, releasing a deadly mixture of toxins. Image: Tash Morgan.

That beautiful place is gone forever ... because for nearly 15 years, industrialised countries have been offloading their unwanted electronic waste into this area. Currently up to 80 tons of e-waste per month, from places like the USA, UK, EU and Australia, is smuggled into Ghana and dumped at Agbogbloshie. It is now one of the world’s largest e-waste sites.

Globally recognised computer and electronic brands can easily be spotted here, and corporate inventory labels have identified electronic items belonging to prominent international charitable organisations and even UK government departments. Containing many of the toxins now banned by EU law, this hazardous e-waste is usually smuggled into Ghana under the guise of 'secondhand re-usable goods' – but it is obvious that the items here are unusable and beyond repair. Many are completely disassembled. 

Migrant workers, and even children as young as five, scavenge the refuse around the clock. They break glass screens and burn plastic casings to retrieve the copper and other valuable metals inside, which they sell to scrap merchants. Within an hour of being here your skin is enveloped in a layer of toxic black dust generated by the e-waste fires, and the poisonous fumes cause a dull, throbbing headache and irritate your sinus passages and lungs. These toxins seep into the water table, soil and air, and are causing permanent damage to the environment.

Ghana E Waste Children 26 03 2014
Children as young as five scavenge the dump for valuable metals, exposing themselves to dangerous, cancer-causing chemicals. Image: Tash Morgan.

According to a 2008 Greenpeace study, air samples from Agbogbloshie indicated excessively high levels of chemicals including a number that cause cancer, harm reproductive health, affect normal brain function, and create other abnormalities. This toxic air travels across the whole of Accra, and beyond. The 2008 study also analysed soil samples from the area, which showed particular metals, including the highly toxic metal lead, present at concentrations over 100 times higher than typical background levels for soils. 

Within the approximately 4.5km2 site there is little to no vegetation and, with up to a metre of melted and broken plastic and glass above the ground, crops commonly seen in urban areas simply cannot grow. Crows and egrets scan the dump for scraps left by people working and living here, but have little luck. Flies persist in bothering both humans and animals. The domestic animals roaming the area for food exhibit visible signs of infection and malnutrition. Most of these are cows and chickens, which are slaughtered and eaten by Agbogbloshie’s residents - and the toxins that have accumulated to dangerous levels in the animals' tissues are ingested along with their meat.  

Each time it rains, the toxic components in the soil get flushed into the water table. The river is visibly dead; it's bubbling with black and green toxic waste and clogged with electronic debris. Whatever aquatic life once survived here is now long gone. 

Ghana E Waste Dump Pollution 26 03 2014
Clogged with plastic and gurgling with black waste, the waters here lost their once-abundant aquatic life long ago. Image: Tash Morgan.

Downstream from Agbogbloshie, egrets nest on a cluster of scraggly trees in the lagoon. Contaminated water emerging from the lagoon's mouth can be seen spreading into the ocean with the break of each new wave. This becomes pronounced with any rainfall, when pollution can be seen drifting far out to sea, some of it flowing back to stain the once-white sands of the nearby beach a sinister shade of black.

The Ghanaian government has officially condemned the practices at Agbogbloshie, but this has not curbed the influx of e-waste, nor lessened the dumping or burning activities.  

Experts believe that any possibility for recuperation here hinges on all activities at Agbogbloshie ceasing immediately. An intense rehabilitation plan would also be necessary, including detoxification and bio-remediation of the soil. Frighteningly, even if activities were to stop right now, but nothing was done to remediate the area, the toxins would continue to spread to all surrounding water sources and through the air for many years to come.