The ‘Innovative’ Western Export Causing Carnage Overseas

In their 2020 journal article, The Decarbonisation Divide, Sovacool et. al discuss how renewable energy, though applauded as an innovation within western environmental discussion, remains far from intersectional when considered more broadly. In many developing nations, it is not only inaccessible but a device of exploitation, as obscured downstream processes, often see its defunct e-waste unloaded onto countries that lack the proper infrastructure to safely dispose of it. Solar energy is one of the front runners in the collective effort to decarbonise the planet and according to the IEA (International Energy Agency) could supply 16% of the world’s electricity by 2050. However whilst the privileged few enjoy a cleaner air supply and obliviously so, a cleaner conscience, its toxic residual matter, once no longer effective is often shipped off illegally. At present Ghana is amongst the biggest importers of these dangerous shipments, simply a convenient means of disposal for more developed nations; but at what cost does it come for locals on the receiving end of the US and Europe’s irresponsibly discarded e-waste?

Sustainability Impact

Accra, Ghana’s capital, is home to an internationally infamous site which has come to be known by locals as ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ due to the potent ash and debris which saturate the air supply. Agbogbloshie is one of the world’s largest e-waste dumping grounds and despite being ranked amongst the most polluted sites on the planet, is frequented by up to 10,000 workers a day salving through the first world’s e-waste in order to earn a living. Though solar e-waste accounted for only 0.6% of global e-waste streams in 2016, disproportionate volumes are being directed towards Ghanaian shores- 150,000 of the world’s 50 million tons a year to be exact. With a government notorious for intransparancy, official figures largely remain undisclosed; however given the figures which are available, we can speculate that amongst its extensive imports, Ghana is annually receiving an estimated 900 tons of solar e-waste alone.  

Environmental Impact

Designed more for durability, less so decomposability, solar panels specifically present quite the feat when it comes to recycling. The diverse mix of materials from which they are built are bound together with tough adhesives and sealants making them difficult to demanufacture. Lacking proper equipment for safe EOL (End-of-Life) management, the waste collectors often resort to burning as an economic means of extracting metals which they will then sell on.  It is a task which can prove lethal as several of their interior elements release toxic gasses in the process and can have devastating effects on the workers.

Cause for further concern, not so far from the putrid fumes of Agbogbloshie is Accra’s largest food market, bustling with buyers from across Ghana picking up locally grown produce; it presents a risky purchase as the burning e-waste, only a small distance away is known for infiltrating food and water supplies.

Lead is a key component in both solar panels and batteries, however, if left to seep into surrounding soil and bodies of water can poison crops. When burning off-grid solar equipment, lead particles are often transported into agricultural land as dust, giving way to the potential for brain and kidney disease for anyone consuming contaminated produce. In a recent study carried out by IPEN and Basel Action Network, it was discovered that a sample of eggs laid by a chicken who had grazed amongst the Agbogbloshie e-waste contained high concentrations of toxins, amongst them, PbS (lead-sulphite) and according to the study: “An adult eating one egg would exceed European Food Safety Authority limits on chlorinated dioxins (a direct product of Agbogbloshie’s wide-spread  smelting practise) 220 times over”- another of solar energy’s lesser known afflictions which is seldom considered within the flawed manufacturing of ‘tomorrow’s energy ’. 

Social Impact

Copper is essential in the make-up of solar panels, especially for collecting, storing and distributing energy, however, when set alight becomes highly carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and teratogenic (birth defect-causing) to anyone close enough to inhale its deadly fumes. Workers are forced to make the impossible choice between “poverty and poison” and in risking their long-term health are awarded a meagre $70 per month on average.  

The dumping site, world-famous for all the wrong reasons, also sees numerous child-labourers visiting its dicey grounds on a daily basis. Trading school for salvaging, they are particularly vulnerable to the potential diseases waiting to prey on them at every smog-filled corner of Agbogbloshie: respiratory conditions, stomach disease and skin ailments to list just a few. Working hours at a time without protective equipment, they stand hopelessly victim to a NIMBY (Not-In-My-Backyard) mentality where manufactures turn a blind eye to downstream consequences so long as their immediate surroundings remain unaffected. With solar energy enjoying a pristine public reputation in the industrialised world, minors as young as six coming into contact with dangerous off-grid residue presently seems to be an out of sight out of mind issue; none the less the reality of child labour reveals a disreputable stain of negligence upon its squeaky clean façade.

Political Impact

As one of the 53 signatories of the 1989 Basel Convention, it remains illegal for Ghana to receive many of its electronic shipments as the international agreement enforces a ban on the transport of hazardous e-waste to nations who lack adequate infrastructure for safe processing. However this doesn’t stop tons of dangerous electronic residue, overwhelmingly of the western persuasion, from spreading across Ghana’s capital as according to the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs “there is no shortage of laws and regulations, it is the enforcement that is lacking.” So with a weak legal framework failing the nation’s most vulnerable, how can we move forwards with decarbonisation- without leaving anyone behind? 

How can Investment Help Address this Burnout?

With investors eager to place their money more upstream of the solar energy chain, it is clear that its ESG credentials start to rapidly decline the further downstream one goes. Indeed, a financial boost in the area of EOL management could relieve a significant burden off the countries receiving its toxic offshoots once no longer fit for purpose. An all-encompassing task, it has been willingly taken on by the Swiss government through their SRI project (Sustainable Recycling Industries) launched in 2015. Aiming to address the issue from the ground up, SRI has invested €6.1 million into improving facilities in Ghana and will focus on human resources and much-needed infrastructure in an effort to reduce the necessity of smelting toxic matter for extraction. Its generous investment is also set to include an awareness campaign, educating both informal recyclers and manufactures on safer, more efficient methods of waste-management; and indeed more investments within the same vein could be a key motivator in seeking out solutions for the future.  

Whilst undeniably a valuable generator of forward-looking energy supplies, ESG investors may have been left in the dark for too long when it comes to solar energy’s off-grid problem. Though its power is in part being harnessed to save the planet, its dormant toxic matter when placed into the wrong hands can be devastating for the very human-life which it is built to preserve.  Its potential dangers are not inherent but subject to policy, manufacturing and waste-management, however with more carefully directed investments focused on problem-solving rather than its innovative public image alone, solar energy can perhaps provide a brighter future for all.