Ghana wants to USE electronics, not take them apart

July 20, 2011

By Jamison Shabanowitz ’12, COS Summer Research Student

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Last time I wrote in this space, I highlighted the growing problem of illegal e-waste dumping in the global South.  Places like Ghana are overwhelmed by old electronics from the global North.  From the looks of the videos embedded in my last entry, these materials are sought after in these poorer countries for their metal and plastic component parts rather than their primary use, even if they are still in working condition. 

Yet my friend Corbett Wicks ’12 tells of a different story.  Over the past year, she has spent time in Ghana and notes the high demand for electronics, especially cell phones and laptops, to use rather than to take apart.  Ghana ranks 49th in the world when it comes to the number of working cell phones in the country according to the CIA World Factbook with over 15 million devices, most of them purchased in open-air markets along the streets of urban areas for as little as $2.00.

Wicks in fact felt pressured by her friends at the University of Ghana in the West African country’s capital, Accra, to give her cell phone to one of them once they knew of her plans to head back to the States.  “The younger generations in Ghana, especially those who attend one of the Universities, own and use electronics.”

Older generations have not been as swept up in the movement to modernize as younger generations, sparking a debate as to what the country should look like in the years to come.  There are many Ghanans who prefer less Western influence in their day-to-day lives, particularly those in rural areas.  According to Wicks, outside of Accra, cell phones and other electronic devices are rarely found.

A real downside to modernizing is the environmental impact of this influx of new technology.  Even taking out the West’s exportation of trash, Wicks notes the hazardous waste problem within cities and towns in Ghana:  “Trash of all kinds lines the streets, and even if it is maintained, it is only taken down to an open-air dump where the poor scrounge for workable items.”

Ghana does not need more trash to sort through for precious metals; some of their population just wants to “westernize.”  Our duty here across the Atlantic is to make sure that our trash stays States-side and responsibly handled, while working materials are donated to those in need, whether here or in developing countries like Ghana.  People want to use cell phones; they do not want to rummage through cancer-causing material and turn in metal scraps from e-waste for meager profit.

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