The stuff we don’t want

Mongabay highlights the appalling situation in the Agbogbloshie slum outside Accra, which has become a massive toxic dumping ground for electronic waste. Agbogbloshie understandably gets a lot of attention, but it has been interesting to see some of the wider picture here. The e-waste in Agbogbloshie is the stuff that can’t be fixed any more – has reached the end of its life. It is dismantled and burnt until metals and other salvageable materials with any value can be extracted. Kwei Quartey estimates in the Mongabay article that 10-20% of the electronic waste that enters Ghana is beyond repair – the rest, however, flows into Ghana and is repaired and used. Computers are only a part of what comes in.


In Ghana, you see used computers, fridges, microwaves and televisions everywhere. And blenders, stereo systems, radios, cars, trucks, furniture and clothing. All on the side of the road, because practically everything is sold at the side of the road. Driving through the outskirts of Kumasi you often see huge trucks pulled up, containers full of shrink-wrapped boxes of various shapes and sizes. Computers are stacked up side by side with televisions, furniture and fridges. People wait by these trucks as they’re emptied or browse the rows of equipment arranged by the side of the road. Fridges are marked with the names of the people who’ve bought them in whiteboard marker on the doors. Hi-fi equipment is stacked outside the front of dealers’ stores like the biggest separates systems you’ve ever seen. Televisions outside shops are in various stages of undress – functioning sets sit next to exposed CRTs, circuit boards and speakers. Computer cases are stacked ten high and ten wide in the backs of shops.

Can you buy these things brand new in Ghana? Yes. But they’re usually either European or American imports that are far too expensive for many people or difficult to get hold of, or they’re Chinese. And the Chinese goods in Ghana are the kind of quality that used to give Chinese-produced goods a bad name in the UK. Nasty, low-grade plastic, often not even working from new, liable to fall apart if “looked at funny”. So people would often rather by a used imported item from Europe than a brand new item from China because even if the European item is a few years old, if it has been reconditioned or repaired it’s likely to last longer than the Chinese item – particularly ironic when the European item was in all likelihood made in China in the first place, but to a much higher standard. Poor quality Chinese products flood Ghana – and often, it’s stupid things like toothpicks and matchsticks that Ghanaian companies are perfectly capable of making. Many also just prefer things from Europe or the US. Thai and Vietnamese rice is sold in Ghana with huge US flags on the bags and names like Uncle Sam.

Then there are the vehicles. German minibuses zip past Korean fire trucks and European cars, and huge lumbering logging trucks from who knows where. Some vehicles are powered by gas, some by petrol, some by orange juice for all I know. Vehicles are in various states of disrepair but there’s always someone to repair them. There’s an area in Kumasi where mechanics, repair shops and parts shops spread over several blocks, and old rusting wheels are stacked up on the street next to shiny new spares and adornments and chunks of truck carcass. A car that might be written off in the UK because of a bump necessitating a £1500 repair may end up in Ghana, repaired, and good to run for years.

The ability of some people here to repair, patch, modify and make do is phenomenal. It also confuses the hell out of me. I’ve previously mentioned the poor state of so many buildings – never finished, or allowed to deteriorate to the point where the walls are falling down. It’s not just buildings – it’s infrastructure. The potholes in the roads get bigger and bigger until they’re road-sized, bridges and other infrastructure allowed to practically melt away, before they’re practically remade – never repaired, which might have saved so much money and inconvenience.  The maintenance culture in Ghana seems practically non-existent, and seems in no small part to be down to a lack of planning or commitment on the part of the government. And yet stuff – electrical goods, cars, trucks and all these other things in the backs of containers – finds a new life here, patched up and coaxed back to life.

Some of the clothing that people in the UK donate to charities or send off for recycling ends up for sale here. The other day I saw a workshop assistant wearing a T-shirt with Andy Pipkin from Little Britain on the front. Second-hand clothes are called bruni wa wo, which translates as ‘white man has died’ – because why else would we get rid of millions upon millions of perfectly good T-shirts, shirts, jeans, trousers, skirts, suits and bras?

There’s a lot of comment on the role of Stuff We Don’t Want (SWEDOW) in international development – where developed countries send anything from T-shirts to bras to those in developing countries. It’s mainly negative. That those in developing countries are supposed to be helped by receiving the things that people in developed countries have used and discarded is debatable when you consider the cost of shipping containers full of stuff, or the effect that all this stuff being bought and sold has on domestic markets, manufacturers and culture. Most of the time these examples of Stuff We Don’t Want consist of some do-gooder sending T-shirts. Or bras. But Ghana’s different. Ghana’s a clearing house and processing plant for Stuff We Don’t Want on an industrial scale. It’s Stuff We Don’t Want because we got more stuff and our old stuff isn’t that cool any more, Stuff We Don’t Want because it got broken and it costs far too much to fix it, Stuff We Don’t Want because it got a bit of a scratch and we can get another one because our contract’s up for renewal, Stuff We Don’t Want because we’re not quite sure what to do with those toxic substances it’s made with, Stuff We Don’t Want because we think that Africans should have our stuff as well shouldn’t they.

Agbogbloshie is the raw, ugly face of Stuff We Don’t Want in Ghana, but the stuff is everywhere. In an ideal world, Europe and the US would get over their addiction to the accumulation of stuff, take more responsibility for disposing of the stuff and the stuff would be built in a way where it didn’t poison the environment or the people who processed it. If just the UK had nowhere to throw its stuff – if all of the computers, fridges, phones, microwaves, desks, cars, vans and T-shirts all had to stay within the borders of the UK, be processed, re-used or recycled right there, just imagine how quickly the problem would strike home, and how quickly people would start demanding it was dealt with.