“E-waste” has become a complex challenge for Ghana. Agbogbloshie, located in Accra, is the world’s largest e-waste dumpsite, harming health and environment. But how can Ghana face this problem when old, electronic devices are hardly seen as waste?
‘Spoiled’ phones and ‘scraps’: the role of the repairmen
“Madam, why have you bought a new phone? Was it completely spoiled?” I was looking at the second phone that I used for my workshop ‘environmental awareness’ at Senior High School for girls in Tamale, Ghana. To be honest, it wasn’t completely destroyed. The screen was broken, the phone was a bit slow, but in the end I was still able to make phone calls. However, I felt ready to buy a new phone because I wanted a faster connection and fancier camera options. I looked back at the student: “No, it is not completely spoiled. But in the Netherlands we buy new phones when the newest Samsung or iPhone is available in the shops. We never use our phones until it is not working anymore.” The girl looked at me like I was completely out of my mind, and she walked back to her table.
In Ghana, a phone is called ‘spoiled’ when the phone is completely damaged and cannot be repaired anymore. For example, when it suffers water damage, when you cannot make any phone calls, or when the touchscreen is not working anymore. In all other cases, a phone can be repaired by the mobile phone repairman. The repairman decides if a phone is still useful or ruined. If the phone is called spoiled (which is completely damaged) the owner often leaves the phone with the repairman, after which the phone switches from a valuable gift into a trade product. As Tsing (2015) describes in The Mushroom at the End of the World, the value of a product changes when it ends up with different groups of people. The social meaning of the phone is constantly changing. Remarkably, for the repairman the ruined phone still a product he can use. He will remove valuable parts, such as the battery, out of the ruined one to repair other phones. After he uses the important parts of the phone, he dumps the leftovers or ‘scraps’, as the repairmen call it. The value of the product has changed again, from ‘useful product’ into ‘scrap’. However, both owner and repairman never call spoiled phones ‘e-waste’, because ‘waste’ is something that you cannot use again. Even ‘scrap’ can still be traded on Agbogbloshie (Learn more: Aljazeera E-waste Republic by Ottaviani 2015).
Ownership and responsibility
During one of my workshops, a student said to me: “But madam, we cannot buy the phone ourselves. It is expensive, and my dad does not allow me to do my own purchases.” The students always depend on someone else for their purchases. That is why they find it hard to see their spoiled phone as waste because it was a gift from a special person giving it a high social and economic value. The girls often get their phones from parents, aunts, uncles, older brothers or sisters, or boyfriends.
The person that gave the phone to the girl is seen as the ‘owner’ of the phone, the girl is the ‘user’. Because of this social construct, the user does not decide for herself what she can do with the phone, when she can use the phone, or what happens with the phone when it is damaged. When she damages the phone, she needs to tell the owner that it is spoiled. The students tell me that this is sometimes scary as the owner will be disappointed, angry, or will ask annoying questions about how it happened. Also, because the owner paid a lot of money for it, the student will feel guilty. The process of telling the owner that the user broke their gift, and the decision if the phone is unusable or not, is upon the owner.
Thus, it is difficult for owners and users to call a spoiled mobile phone ‘waste’ because the phone was a valuable gift from owner to user giving it a high social value. Secondly, it shows economic capital because it was an expensive purchase for which the owners paid a lot of money. Lastly, the phones and even the scraps are always useful again. It is hard to solve the e-waste problem in Ghana when old, electronic devices (like mobile phones) are hardly seen as waste by their owners, users, and the repairmen. It is important to understand the role of electronic devices in the form of ‘gifts’, ‘spoiled phones’, and ‘scraps’ to understand the impact of e-waste on the environment (Reno 2015). Governmental – and environmental organizations should take this into consideration when making policy and designing projects to reduce the e-waste problem in Ghana.