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Illicit hazardous waste trade booming in Ghana despite health and environmental threats

Illicit hazardous waste trade booming in Ghana despite health and environmental threats
A young boy transported cables and other electronic devices in an old monitor at a waste site in Ghana. (Photo: The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions/Flickr)

Ghana cannot recycle all its hazardous waste imports, but that hasn’t curbed its role in the billion-dollar global business. 

Illicit waste trafficking generates around $10-billion to $12-billion worldwide every year, according to the Financial Action Task Force. Ghana plays a major role in this market, despite being unable to recycle all the hazardous waste it imports.

Each year, around 150,000 tonnes of electronic waste are shipped to Ghana, legally and illegally. Both Western and Ghanaian companies benefit from legal loopholes and corruption, enabling their hazardous waste activities in the country.

Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency Project Coordinator Larry Kotoe said a strong electronics repair industry was established after Ghana’s independence in 1957. The country remains a key destination for hazardous waste, even though not all of it can be fixed.

Hazardous waste causes health problems and devastates the environment. To extract copper from cables, the plastic wiring is burnt, releasing toxic polyvinyl chloride and brominated flame. People living near Accra’s Agbogbloshie dumpsite inhale these toxic fumes, which can lead to pollution- or chemical-related diseases.

Hazardous waste crimes involve government officials, criminal and mafia groups, and corporations. Apparently, no other form of organised crime provides as many opportunities for money laundering and tax fraud as hazardous waste.

Industries can make huge profits by illegally disposing of waste. Criminals and corporations can also easily overcome international waste treaties by falsifying or mislabelling genuine waste documents as recycling or second-hand goods.

Hazardous waste is enabled by corruption and a lack of care at exporting ports. Marco Antonelli, political science Professor at the University of Pisa in Italy, says: “If hazardous waste leaves European ports illegally, that’s because it’s easier to export illegally from [European ports] than to import to the European Union (EU)”. He says while Europeans control what enters their soil, “they don’t care very much about what is exported from their countries”.

Corruption is exacerbated by a flexible law enforcement approach to hazardous waste globally. Suspects of pollution crime are rarely charged with organised crime offences. And the lack of enforcement and low penalties allow organised criminal groups to break environmental laws on a large scale.

Means of survival for many

Importing second-hand items is also a question of economic survival for many in Ghana, according to Green Advocacy Ghana. The World Bank reports that 27% of Ghana’s population lives in poverty, and hazardous waste generates jobs and income. Most students cannot afford new computers, so they buy used ones ‘cannibalised’ from old, imported machines. Without this option, many would struggle to pursue their higher education.

“It would therefore not only be political suicide for the government to put a total ban on these ‘cannibalised’ computers, but Members of Parliament would not want to put a ban or vote for a law in favour of such a bill,’ says James Benjamin Gaisie from the Ghana Ports and Harbours Authority.

Hazardous waste is regulated internationally by the Basel and Bamako conventions. The former entered into force in 1992 and aims to protect human health and the environment by regulating transboundary movements and waste disposal. Parties to the Basel Convention can make deals on hazardous waste management with other parties or non-parties, provided that such agreements are “no less environmentally sound” than the Basel treaty (Article 11).

The Bamako convention, which came into force in 1998, was a response to the Basel Convention’s Article 11. It bans all imports of hazardous waste into Africa from non-contracting parties. Ghana has ratified only the Basel Convention.

Unlike the Bamako treaty, the Basel Convention excludes household waste. That means importing household waste items such as television sets and refrigerators is legal in Ghana. Both the Environmental Protection Agency’s Kotoe and a scrap dealer in Agbogbloshie said there is no Ghanaian law forbidding citizens living abroad from bringing in or sending containers of used appliances supposedly for ‘personal use’.

Legal controls

Ghana’s government acknowledges the hazardous waste problem. It passed the Hazardous and Electronic Waste Control and Management Act in 2016 to create a legal framework for more sustainable waste management. Technical guidelines on the handling of hazardous waste were developed under the Sustainable Recycling Industries programme.

But a loophole in the Basel Convention allows parties to define waste for themselves. In contrast, the Bamako treaty has more constraints, prohibiting the import of all hazardous waste unless the receiving country has the technical capacity to recycle it. Accra doesn’t have that ability, which could explain why it hasn’t ratified the Bamako convention. Kotoe does acknowledge that the Bamako convention is more protective of African countries’ national interests.

To address the risks, Ghana should tighten controls on the movement of hazardous waste, focusing on shipments mislabelled ‘second-hand’. That would require prioritising the issue at a leadership level, gathering information, and closely monitoring the routes and conditions of hazardous waste in the country. The involvement of organised crime must also be unravelled.

National laws and enforcement capacity must be strengthened, including equipping seaports with more efficient technologies, and training port personnel to detect hazardous waste. Cooperation between customs, police, environmental authorities and prosecutors to curb waste crimes is also crucial. Higher fines and longer sentences would deter hazardous waste exporters and their local counterparts.

European ports must impose tighter controls on exports. The EU regulation on waste shipments emphasises the need to protect the environment by strengthening, simplifying and specifying the procedures for controlling waste shipments. And yet waste trafficking continues at these ports.

While recycling can positively impact the environment and create jobs, hazardous waste trafficking remains a threat. Ghana’s government and exporting countries must ensure that Ghanaians and the country’s economy are not held hostage to this illegal recycling trade. DM

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, Enact West Africa, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and Solomon Okai, Senior Programme Officer, Foundation for Security and Development in Africa.

Enact is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with Iinterpol and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.

First published by ISS Today


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