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West treats Ghana as a country that's down in the dumps
DEAD ON ARRIVAL: They dispose of rubbish and toxic waste in poor African nation
WHY does your printer die? So that you will buy another. So manufacturers will continue to manufacture. So workers will continue to be busy, and so on, wheels within wheels, until all the tired, dead, done printers encased in plastic made to last forever lie in heaps that clog up a river in some so-called Third World.
Mike Anane is a campaigning journalist in Accra, Ghana. As a boy he used to fish in the Odaw, a beautiful river, he now recalls. He remembers playing on its banks, the lagoon was beautiful and the air was so fresh, close to the water.
When I telephoned Mike in Ghana yesterday, he spoke of another childhood, but without the joy and the verve of his own. "There are now children of five or six on this riverbank now smashing TVs with stones, being slowly poisoned by lead, cadmium, flame retardant. They will not live to their 20th birthday."
I have seen pictures of the river Odaw in its present day, especially at the suburb of Agbogbloshie, not a riverbank now but a huge tip for the detritus of our throwaway society: dead printers with built-in obsolescence chips that disable them after printing a few thousand copies, dead fridges, dead monitors.
"We receive about 500 container loads of this garbage every month," says Mike Anane.
"Oh, Britain, Holland, Germany, the US. TV sets, computers, fridges. Everything they have to throw away," said Mike.
"But are they not living off this, salvaging and recycling the scrap metal?" I asked.
I think I detected a tone of anger in Mike's voice. "This isn't recycling. This is crudely done, young people, children smashing TVs with stones. Not recycling at all. There's a major health issue here. Lots of sick children here and there's smoke everywhere from the burning plastic. And the problem, the pollution ends up in the sea. We share the sea. This is a global issue."
"Isn't dumping of toxic waste illegal under international law?" I asked. "How did they get to Ghana?"
"They come here in containers, lots of containers, as second-hand goods. They get around the law that way. But these are not secondhand goods, these are end-of-life computers, electronic waste. It gets worse after Christmas when we get so much discarded goods from Europe. They're using my country as a rubbish dump."
Product life is an important aspect of design technology with a sting in the tail. In our consumerist, disposable society where shopping has become part of our life of recreation and stuff of our joie de vivre, products are made to last just long enough.
Take light bulbs: there's technology to make yours last well into the next century, but no, 1,500 hours are probably the most they'll give you. Take printers. There you sit waiting to print the entire content of War and Peace when suddenly a window flashes on your computer screen: your printer's dead, it's done, it's a dodo.
You take it to the repair shop of course, but you know the answer already. "Go and buy a new one," they will tell you. "It's cheaper."
There is a way around this because the eprom chip that disables your printer after a certain number of prints can be re-set to zero with the help of a freeware application that you can download from enterprising eco-warriors on the Internet, but your light bulbs will be dead and your fridges and electric kettles will still have to be consigned under cover of false declarations (as second-hand goods or as charity donations) to Ghana or other poorer parts of the world.
It is estimated that of the millions of tonnes of electronic goods that are discarded every year, 70 per cent will end up in poorer countries. The fault lies not in the ships that carry the goods, dear friends, it is in the way we use up our world.
Can industry come up with ecologically intelligent designs? Michael Braungart, a German chemist, and William McDonough, an American architect, think so. Together they have formed a partnership called Cradle to Cradle, to re-examine the way we make things for a sustainable world.
Theirs is a philosophy that borrows from nature that throws and feeds the world.
Take leaves and petals and cherry blossoms. They drop and they die, but the "dead" provide nutrition for future trees. Why can't we be clever like that? Why can't we throw and feed ourselves?
"Imagine a world in which all the things we make, use and consume provide nutrition for nature and industry -- a world in which growth is good and human activity generates a delightful, restorative ecological footprint," they say, outlining their philosophy.
Take their book Cradle to Cradle as an example. It is printed on synthetic paper made from resin and inorganic fillers. It feels like high quality paper, it is waterproof and rugged and it can be recycled and reused again and again, as yogurt containers maybe.
No more shiploads to Ghana.