Agbogbloshie was named one of the world's most polluted places in a recent report, and listening to David Fedele you can appreciate why. The Australian filmmaker spent three months at this Ghanaian mega-dump, the world's second largest graveyard for electronic waste,
"It's basically 24 hours a day, seven days a week, of burning old electronics to remove the plastics, and get small amounts of metal that can be salvaged and resold," he says. "It's in a constant state of dark toxic smoke, and the smell is unimaginable and never-ending."
Ghana imports 215,000 tons of e-waste from overseas, mostly from Europe, and much of it ends up at Agbogbloshie. Once scavengers have extracted metals from cabling and old appliances (they're looking for copper and aluminum mostly) what's left stays put, so the site is becoming cumulatively more toxic.
The work though is "extremely well organized," Fedele says. "Masters" bring in new loads of waste each day, and run teams of four or five kids who do the burning. Then, at about 4 p.m., the masters go to traders near the site who buy metals by the kilo. Mostly, the buyers are Lebanese, and the materials are re-exported again. "Everyone has a part in the process. They all help each other, even though they're all trying to make a living for themselves," Fedele says.
Fedele's film, called E-Wasteland, is about the people who work at the dump. It's mostly silent and unfiltered. Fedele, who works independently with no crew and few comforts, sees himself more as an artist than a cause-toting journalist, though he does want us to think more deeply about what happens to old electronics.
On the other hand, he says the story is bit more complicated than it's sometimes told. Agbogbloshie is symbolic of modern consumption and the developed world's obliviousness to its impacts. But some of the waste comes from Ghana itself (it generates 129,000 tons a year, according to the Blacksmith Institute) and from other parts of Africa. It's not all trafficked in from the developed world. Also, the dump provides a livelihood of sorts for locals.
Before tearing the place down, something would have to be put in its place. Otherwise people will starve.
Most of the dump-hunters come from a single region in the north of Ghana, Fedele says. They come to Accra, the capital, because the local farming industry is struggling and there are few other opportunities. This means that the best way to close Agbogbloshie is to renew agriculture or offer other alternatives in its place—and to stop sending waste there in the first place. "They're only doing this because the electronics are there. Years ago, it wasn't an issue," Fedele says.