Mapping The Illicit E-Waste Trade Between the UK and Ghana
In this guest post, PaCCS student placement researcher and University of Cambridge doctoral student Kanchelli Iddrisu writes for PaCCS about her experiences mapping the illicit e-waste trade between the UK and Ghana as part of her placement with CEMLAWS, the SafeSeas Network, and PaCCS.
I wrote ‘Mapping the Illicit E-waste Trade between the UK and Ghana’ during a PaCCS placement at the Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa (CEMLAWS) in Accra, Ghana. The aim of this report was to research the nature, impact and extent of the e-waste trade between the UK and Ghana. I became interested in transnational organised crime and maritime issues during my time working at a Ghanaian law firm, but my research background is in Education and Law.
This placement was an amazing experience. I grew both personally and professionally during the three-month research period. My fieldwork required I reach out to organisations, agencies, and individuals in Europe and West Africa and this was a massive change from my usual youth centred research. I have always been interested in environmental law and issues affecting the environment, and this opportunity to study e-waste in depth was beneficial in further expanding that interest. I felt especially connected to this topic as I had visited Agbogbloshie (commonly referred to as one of the world’s biggest e-waste sites) several times as a child, and as a young adult have a deep understanding of the reality of the dark side of technological advancement.
Before I started my e-waste research, I did as much reading as I could on e-waste sites globally, and in Africa especially. The lessons I learnt during my MPhil in Education, Globalisation and International Development at the University of Cambridge helped me to grasp poverty as a foundational issue of the e-waste trade, and the implications of global inequalities. I enjoyed speaking to e-waste experts who had been involved with combatting the negative consequences of the e-waste trade for years. Usually during these conversations, these experts would ask me how much had changed in the last few years. I had to tell them that while interventions had increased, the situation was still challenging, with the most marginalised groups in Ghana feeling the effects of this trade the most.
I benefitted greatly from the assistance of the CEMLAWS team, led by Dr Kamal-Deen Ali. When I struggled to organise interviews with less accessible agencies, CEMLAWS was always available to help, and made sure to make me feel included in their office. Dr Tristram Riley-Smith of PaCCS and Dr Tim Edmunds of the Safe Seas Network both supported my research from the UK, regularly reviewing my documents, meeting with me, and guiding me throughout the process. I found this very helpful as I could openly discuss my ideas with them and learn from them.
My placement was a positive experience, but I did experience some challenges. It was not easy getting research interviews. I often had to visit the same office several times in order to persuade a representative to grant me an interview, and I worried at the beginning that I would not have enough by the end of the placement. Fortunately, and with the help of Dr Riley-Smith, Dr Edmunds, and Dr Kamal, I was able to interview over 40 representatives by the end of the fieldwork phase of my study. Additionally, I had so much data by the end of my fieldwork that I struggled to choose what was most relevant to include in my report, as e-waste is such a complex industry.
During my research, I observed all COVID-19 protocols and conducted most of my interviews virtually, either through Zoom or WhatsApp. Ghana was not on lockdown during this, but the majority of the people I interacted with were careful and took the pandemic very seriously.
Dr Edmunds gave me a chance to present at the Safe Seas Blue Ideas Lab during my placement. My presentation was 10 minutes, with 20 minutes allocated for questions after. I was grateful for this opportunity as it allowed me to practice presenting my research, and I got to listen to the presentations of people who are experts in their fields. At the end of my placement, Dr Kamal invited me to act as a rapporteur for a National Integrated Maritime Strategy Workshop in Koforidua, Ghana. This was also a great experience and by the end of it I had met so many knowledgeable people involved with the maritime industry in Ghana. The opportunities I have received so far as a result of this placement have been invaluable.
Through my research, I mapped eight key sites along the e-waste trade route between the UK and Ghana. In my report I discussed the significance of each site and determined how they related to each other. It was also important to the team that I focus on the illicit aspect of this, so I characterised this feature, and examined the main drivers of the illicit e-waste trade.
I found mapping the e-waste trade and distilling the activities and actors involved into compact sites a complicated process, but I was able to create an overview of the trade by doing this. This ‘site based’ method was suggested by Dr Edmunds and I found it a helpful way to organise my data collection and structure the report. My findings showed that the e-waste trade between the UK and Ghana is loosely organised, dynamic, and consists of small groups, with actors usually involved with more than two aspects of the e-waste trade at a time. The key drivers discovered were profit, the need or desire for second-hand EEE, and the short lifespan of EEE.
My report raised many interesting points. I got to examine the movement of precious materials from e-waste found in Ghana to other countries for profit. I also highlighted the reality of domestic consumption of EEE in Ghana as a major contributor to the generation of e-waste. In addition, I was able to document people’s attitudes to the e-waste trade and the crimes, such as money laundering, that this network could conceal.
My recommendations included:
- During the fieldwork part of this research, it was found that many relevant institutions, offices, and companies were based in Accra, the capital city, and Tema, a port city. Most of the e-waste workers in Agbogbloshie were from the North of Ghana, yet the interventions to encourage local job creation and awareness of the consequences of informal e-waste recycling in regions in the North of Ghana are limited. It is recommended that Ghana implements more active decentralisation of institutions linked to reducing e-waste flows.
- Digitisation of data should be improved across institutions to increase access to e-waste statistics
- Increased data sharing and collaboration between institutions is recommended. This report found that some institutions were not up to date on current e-waste projects and interventions
- Ghana has signed the Bamako convention, but has not yet ratified it. It is recommended that Ghana does this to strengthen collaboration with other West African countries
- Enforcement agencies and prosecutors should be more aware of the crimes that concealed or made possible due to the logistical network that the e-waste trade provides. These crimes include tax evasion and money laundering in the e-waste industry.
- The return of shipments of e-waste back to the UK should be facilitated when appropriate.
- The problem of e-waste is often framed as Ghana’s problem. Private actors in the UK such as manufacturers and consumers should be made more aware of their role in this trade.
This experience was brilliant, and I am looking forward to future e-waste research. I am thankful to everyone who supported me during this placement. There are many aspects of this trade that need more attention and I am excited to continue my work in this field however I can.
You can read Ms Iddrisu’s full report on the e-waste trade here.