'This information can be used for all sorts of terrible things: extortion, blackmail, breaking into bank accounts'
Governments around the world became so concerned about the dumping of hazardous waste from First World countries in developing ones that in 1989 they agreed an international treaty, the Basel Convention, which was supposed to combat this.
There are now 170 countries involved in the treaty; Great Britain is a signatory, and so is Ghana. The only three countries that have signed it and not ratified it are Afghanistan, Haiti and the United States, the biggest dumper of toxic e-waste in the world. Despite this effort, though, the illegal trade continues to thrive, as unscrupulous traders exploit loopholes in the law, which is rarely enforced anyway. They do so under the guise of exporting working computers to Africa.
Jim Puckett is disgusted. 'The discovery of toxic computer monitors from the NHS dumped in Ghana is exactly the sort of horrific irony that typifies the flood of toxic electronic junk we now see flowing down the global gutters to places like Ghana,' he says.
'Well-meaning consumers Ð you, me and our doctors even Ð can no longer simply hand over our toxic junk and look the other way or we'll be unwitting accomplices in what really amounts to a global crime. 'Often this ugly toxic trade is justified by pretty words like 'recycling', 'helping the poor' or 'bridging the digital divide', but make no mistake - it is dumping on our neighbours, it is illegal, it causes death and disease, and it must be stopped.'
At the heart of the problem is a global scam.
'Middlemen go round to schools or banks and offer to take away their old computers for a £5 recycling fee,' explains Puckett. They are told the PCs will be disposed of environmentally, or, if they are still usable, given to charities in the developing world.
'The middlemen then sell container loads to traders in countries such as Ghana, filling them 25 per cent with stuff that works, and 75 per cent with stuff that's broken, which would be illegal to dump in the US or the UK.'
In Ghana, the broken junk can be dumped for free. The middlemen get away with the scam by pretending all the computers are usable. By shipping them to Ghana they save a small fortune, as it would cost a considerable amount to scrap them in countries such as the UK, where they would have to be disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner. Ghanaians accept the situation because they get some working computers. 'For everybody it's a win-win, but the environment bears the cost,' says Puckett.
No one knows how much turns up in developing countries, as the trade is illegal and the true figures are hidden. However, in Africa, Ghana's near neighbour Nigeria is also home to a thriving illegal dumping trade.
Professor Oladele Osibanjo, director of the Basel Convention Regional Co-ordinating Centre in Nigeria, estimates that half a million computers arrive there every month.
'When you are poor you accept anything,' he says. And every time technology takes another leap forward - making working electronics obsolete - it's people in the developing world who bear the cost.
'In the West they are switching to digital TV from analogue. That means tons of old TVs will probably head straight to Nigeria in the coming months.'
For years, Osibanjo has been campaigning to stop the trade, but despite telling companies of the death they were exporting to Africa, it was only when he told them sensitive data from hard drives was falling into the wrong hands that they began to attempt to restrict their practices.
'In Nigeria we found sensitive documents from the World Bank and we found stuff from child-protection services in the US, where children had been taken away from families,' he says. 'IBM didn't really care about the waste issue, but once we told them about data from their hard drives that can be used for all sorts of terrible things - from extortion to hacking into bank accounts - they did something at last.'
Benjamin thinks for a minute, and then his face cracks into a grin. 'Ah, you want unformatted hard drives, eh?'he says, pulling a mobile phone out of the back pocket of his jeans. 'You want MasterCard, Visa numbers? Bank account details and addresses? No problem.'
Benjamin is one of a number of faceless middlemen in Ghana who buy and sell computers. He knows that many are looking for computers with unwiped hard drives that contain sensitive information that can be used to extort money, steal someone's identity or even rummage in someone's bank account. He offers us unformatted hard drives for £20 each. 'No guarantees, though,' he says.
We have made our way to the port of Tema, near Accra, where thousands of containers are unloaded every day. A corrupt port official let us in to see for ourselves the container after container of electronics. Outside the port's security perimeter, makeshift stalls have been set up on every street, selling battered Pentium II and III computers for around £75 each.
On a rough patch of reddish dirt, under flapping awnings, men are plugging PCs into car batteries and installing pirated versions of Windows software.
Seated behind a bank of computers under a whipping plastic sheet, wearing a vibrant patterned blouse and dripping with gold jewellery, is Michelle (she refused to give her full name).
She has a thick north London accent. She used to work at King George Hospital in Ilford, north east London, taking blood samples and performing other administrative duties, before realising she could make a killing in the burgeoning computer-export business. 'I have a container full of computers at the docks that I have to pay duty on,' she says. 'But more are arriving every day.'
A cursory look at her computers reveals where they're from: Wakefield and Pontefract Community Health NHS Trust, South West Yorkshire Mental Health NHS Trust, Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust. In fact, directly from hospitals all over the UK. They would be prime targets for fraudsters.
'Yeah,' says Michelle. 'I haven't touched the hard drives.' One computer is password-protected. 'No problem,' says one of her co-workers, who whips off the cover and prises a battery out with a screwdriver. 'Not password-protected any more. Ha!'
Returning to Agbogbloshie, we decide to follow the blackened run-off from the dump to its ultimate destination. A lagoon near the dump has been turned an inky black. Its contents flow into a rusty pipe a foot in diameter that leads out to sea. A thundering cascade of tar-coloured toxic water, millions of gallons, flows into the Gulf of Guinea and the South Atlantic, turning the sea black.
A forlorn band of people from the suburb of Korle Gonno, a fishing community, are scratching around in the rubbish trying to find fish to eat. Fifty yards away the pipeline pumps its deadly cocktail into the ocean.
Olu Kweik, 27, is a fisherman like his father and his grandfather before him. These days his nets are full of garbage, old TV monitors, circuit boards and other junk. 'The nets are twice as heavy these days,' he says. 'Not with fish - that is about half of what it was - but with rubbish. We can't work or make money. We are starving.' He is with 20 other people, who begin to argue in the background about how to divide up the fish they've picked out of the rubbish over the past two hours, which now sits in a large steel bowl.
Away from all this suffering and misery, and not far from where the new £15 million presidential palace is being constructed, are the government buildings. Ghana's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a magisterial edifice housing a warren of offices.
'Fifty yards away the pipeline pumps its deadly cocktail into the ocean'
We ask to speak to someone about the dire situation we've witnessed, but the security guard on reception says that the media spokesperson is away at World Environmental Day in Wellington, New Zealand, and is unable to talk.
However, when we go back outside, we find him, laughing and joking with some colleagues in a leafy glade not far from his office. Caught, he reluctantly agrees to speak.
For half an hour, EPA press spokesperson Anthony Abadidoo, a long-limbed, wry man in an open-necked plaid shirt, sits at his desk dodging, ducking and feebly trying to joke his way out of my questions. He refuses to let me record our conversation. 'This is not a crisis,' he says.
Then he uses the standard phrases of bureaucrats the world over. 'We are putting in a process; I have to talk to the guy who is working on this, but he has been away on vacation. We need to do a baseline study to show us guidelines on how we should deal with this waste.' It's not exactly convincing.
'I will not put a deadline on when we are going to sort this out,' he declares. 'I will not stick my neck out. If I do, people will say I am not straightforward and that I am a liar.'
After all this, he concludes, 'Progress has to come through a long and crooked process.' Then he stands up awkwardly and grasps my hand. 'And, thank you for the grilling,' he says politely.
Luke Upchurch, of UK-based Consumers International, which represents more than 220 consumer groups in 115 countries, is more concerned. 'It's a disgrace that the Basel Convention is not being policed,' he says to me later.
'The legislation is there Ð it just needs to be enforced.' In the meantime he is fighting to get electronics giants to take responsibility for their products.
'Companies such as Sony and LG need to have a proper policy in place to dispose of computers, cellphones and old TVs, in the same way that car batteries or ink cartridges are processed.'
Two miles from the dump is a rare patch of beach that is unpatrolled by the security guards who protect tourists and businessmen at the ritzy hotels from the slum children. It's known locally as Boola beach; Boola meaning rubbish.
The currents are too dangerous for swimming, but on Sunday it's thick with children from the slums who feel it's worth risking the dangerous currents just to be able, for once, to wash off the toxins from the dump and swim in the sea.
We find Schoolboy and his friends, all in ragged shorts, lying in the sand. It's the first time I''e ever seen them smile. Covered in salt and sand, they start to speak about their dreams; how they want to be soldiers, policemen, racing drivers. Schoolboy says
he wants to be an airline pilot. He tells me he sees planes flying over the dump, going far away. 'I would like that job,' he says. But mostly he would just like to go home. 'I'm saving up to get out of here,' he continues. 'It's all been a mistake -it's horrible.' He needs about £10 for the bus journey back up north. But that could take weeks of breaking monitors and melting circuit boards. Even then he isn't hopeful he'll be able to make such a grand sum of money.
When I leave Ghana, I fly over the dump site and see the ground turned black and the smouldering fires sending poisonous smoke up into the sky. After just a few days there my heart races at night, my skin itches and I can't sleep, and there's a heaviness to my breathing. A small taste of what the boys forced into these conditions have to endure.
I imagine Schoolboy down below looking up at the plane, thinking about his own escape. But all I can see from the air is that the deathly black slick running into the sea from the dump site now reaches Boola beach. The one place Schoolboy can escape to is also being poisoned - the toxins are in everything he comes into contact with. There is no escape.
by Jonathan Green