A terrible disaster has occurred. Where once clean waters flowed through river valleys, now there is nothing but a wasteland. The people who remain are left to pick through the mounds of rubbish in the hope of finding something, anything, they can sell to pay for a bowl of food.
Children burn cables to extract copper from the fire-retardant cladding. Belching forth from shallow pits in the earth, toxic fumes creep over the shanty town on the other side of the river. These miasmas bring diseases that inflame the lungs, burn the eyes, and leave the seed of cancer to germinate in their victims. Sick as they are, the few medical resources available to the population come from street vendors, who have nothing to sell except for painkillers: a mixture of caffeine and paracetamol.
As the victims of this calamity make their way over the ravaged world, a new generation grows up, almost wholly ignorant of what has gone before. They can hardly imagine that beneath the broken glass of television screens and under the shattered shells of hard drives, there were once lush pastures.
Others know how things have changed. The fishermen who dredge up bits of wire and fragments of plastic in their nets, know that the oily sea used to teem with fish. Now the only silver streak twirling in their net is a tiddler or two alongside the gleaming aluminium.
It is the stuff of science fiction: a diverting fantasy for writers to compose in their living rooms. Alas, it isn’t fantasy. In fact, it isn’t even fiction. All of this is happening right now. It is daily life for many people in the developing world. Our fictional nightmare is their daily reality.
Ghana is overwhelmed by rubbish transported there from Europe and elsewhere. Most of these materials are supposed to be used again. The streets are full of mechanics and self-taught engineers who can make mobiles ring again with little more than a pair of pliers and a soldering iron. Unfortunately, they cannot repair everything. When something is beyond even their powers of recuperation, it is often just dumped at the edge of town, creating a dystopian horror story.
The sad thing is that none of this is necessary. Objects such as computers are full of precious metals, including platinum and gold. It is cheaper to extract these from manufactured objects than to dig them up in mines. Some companies in the West are doing this now, and they produce so much gold from recycling that it spills out of trays like popcorn at your local cinema. This does not happen enough.
Many DVD players, videos and tablets are plucked out of rubbish dumps in the West and pushed onto container ships bound for Ghana and other countries. Checks on these containers are minimal. The authorities are overwhelmed by the number of containers. In addition, Europe is more interested in stopping illegal goods entering the Union than preventing possibly toxic waste from leaving. Who cares where the rubbish goes? Ghana is far away. It’s a six-hour flight from London, after all.
It is not enough to shrug our shoulders and treat this disaster as inevitable. London is a good example of a city that was badly polluted but still recovered. Once, the Thames was dead to fish and a carrier of diseases like typhoid and cholera. Only sixty years ago, the city’s streets were choked with smog that killed people as they slept. London recovered and so can Ghana and other countries. They need our help. We need to put pressure on politicians to control the recycling process better. We need to put pressure on manufacturers to take back all the tablets, computers and gadgets that they manufacture – and we need to advertise this fact so people know that they can get rid of their mobile via ‘return to sender’.
There’s gold in that thar rubbish, which we should be exploiting, rather than pouring mercury into rivers overseas.
This blog was inspired directly by a programme I saw on TV3 in Catalunya, featuring the campaigning work of local Ghanian journalist: