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John Mahama, 21. Mahama's eyes twitch. He suffers from insomnia and debilitating headaches, but must continue to work in order to pay for his medication. Kevin McElvaney
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Adjoa, 9. Girls like Adjoa balance tubs filled with small frozen water bags on their heads to sell to workers. The water bags are used for refreshment and/or to extinguish the smaller fires. Girls usually prefer selling water or fruits to burning e-waste. Kevin McElvaney
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Adam Latif, 21. Some boys cycle around searching for good places to scavenge. Latif built a functioning PCs with scrap from the fields and sold them in Accra. Kevin McElvaney
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Adams Alhassan, 19. Alhassan decided not to burn e-waste, but works in the part of the dump with food waste instead. He and others who work there often fall sick with malaria because of the mosquitos. Alhassan says without a good education its almost impossible to find another job in Accra. Kevin McElvaney
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Adam Nasara, 25. Nasara wasn’t aggressive, but was in a hurry to burn the cables he set on fire so they didn’t melt together. Kevin McElvaney
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Mogammed Camara, 20. Camara came all the way from Ivory Coast to work at Agbogbloshie. Kevin McElvaneyAdvertisement
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Wellu Seregious, 33. Seregious walked around alone. He was aware of the risks associated with burning cables and electronic goods, so he decided to collect old tins and other metals in areas filled with food and waste from Accra. It was his 4th day working in Agbogbloshie. Kevin McElvaney
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Baba Salifu, 15. Salifu burns e-waste and breeds goats to make a living in Agbogbloshie. Young men there earn an average of $2.50 each day. Kevin McElvaney
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Rahman Dauda, 12. Dauda says he tries to go to school “whenever possible.” He started working three years ago. Like many others, he believes the work is just temporary, but in the end most boys are not able to leave the vicious cycle of Agbogbloshie. Kevin McElvaney
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Kwabena Labobe, 10. Labobe plays on the site. His parents are not able to send him to school and forbid him to burn e-waste. Kevin McElvaney
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Abdul Salam, 18. Salam says he has severe headaches for days, and was sweating and shaking while he and McElvaney spoke. Kevin McElvaney
People love gadgets — especially shiny new ones. Bigger screens. Faster processors. Slimmer profiles. But what happens to our mobile phones, computers and televisions when we upgrade?
Some of them end up in a place like Agbogbloshie, a vast, poisonous dump in Ghana. A former wetland turned slum, the kilometer-long stretch of land is a toxic graveyard of computers, refrigerators and other trash. German photographer Kevin McElvaney documents the young people who pick through the piles, risking their lives in exchange for the meager sums they earn harvesting copper and other valuables.
Located in the city of Accra, Agbogbloshie is known by locals as Sodom and Gomorrah for its hellish conditions and blackened ground that resembles an open sore. The scavengers, typically between 7 and 25, sift through the refuse, setting fire to piles of rubbish to remove the rubber and plastic concealing the more valuable materials within. McElvaney uses the apocalyptic setting as a backdrop for remarkably intimate portraits of the people eking out a living from discarded electronics. “I wanted to make the people the subject, not the fires,” he says.
Many of the workers are from northern Ghana or neighboring countries like Ivory Coast. They’re poor, and often see Agbogbloshie as a way to make a quick buck and move on. They work with bare hands, often in flip-flops, breathing in toxic fumes to earn an average of $2.50 a day. Though most plan to only work for a few weeks, many soon suffer from breathing problems, insomnia, nausea and crushing headaches. Cancer and other illnesses are rumored to kill many e-waste workers by their 20s. Some ease their pain with drugs, but must work the fields to buy them. “It’s a vicious cycle,” McElvaney says.On the northwest side of Agbogbloshie, boys built a bridge with old monitors. There are so many monitors in Agbogbloshie that it was turned into a raw material for construction. Towers are built from keyboards and refrigerators are used as walls for houses. Kevin McElvaney
Despite the growing awareness of sites like Agbogbloshie, e-waste doesn’t seem to be slowing. According to United Nations University, the world discarded some 46 million tons of electronic gadgetry last year. Less than one-sixth was properly recycled or reused. It’s only going to get worse. Global e-waste is expected to 55.1 million tons in 2018.
China and the United States produce the most waste—32 percent of the global total last year—and some of that stuff is landing in Agbogbloshie. Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a watchdog group that monitors e-waste, says he saw computers stamped with American government logos when he visited the site in 2012. Some probably were re-used but others were discarded.
“People just load up containers to places like Ghana with enough working stuff to satisfy the importers and and then the rest is junk, and that junk gets smashed,” Puckett says.
McElvaney agreed not much has changed. Nonprofit recycling programs provide jobs and a safer way to recycle copper, but lack the resources to hire everyone. Many still turn to the smoking fields.
Although his portraits have received worldwide attention, McElvaney wants to continue raising awareness. He’s built a traveling exhibition and is looking for a place to show in the United States. He’s also auctioning prints to benefit non-profits in Agbogbloshie.
“I think it’s important to keep pushing for change that has a real impact,” he says. “[Agbogbloshie and what’s happening there] is still an important issue.”