Plastic Micro-factories in Agbogbloshie

Pellet made by extrusion process
Plastic pellets made by extrusion process

Plastic waste in Ghana has become a major social and ecological problem, due to the adverse effects of plastic pollution on both human health and the environment. Especially during periods of flooding, plastic waste chokes the drainage systems of most Ghanaian cities.  The need for initiatives to improve sanitation in our community is of great importance. Of the many local waste management companies, only few practice segregation and recycling of waste — and not yet at scale. In the area of plastics recycling, Blowplast recycling is one of the formal organizations which recycles water sachet and black bags in large volumes. What a lot of people do not realize is that plastics recycling in Agbogbloshie is a major activity within the informal sector recycling industry.

Because we are current developing a plastics micro-factory as part of the AMP toolset (one of first prototypes is a mini-kiln for moulding plastic tiles), we continue to work with Agbogbloshie plastics recyclers in order to better understand how the process works now and how it can be improved.

One of the more advanced industrial setups we have come across is located on Abosey Okai Road. Stages in the process flow include sorting, shredding and pelletizing. This micro-factory engages more then 20 youths in Agbogbloshie in full-time employment! The sorted plastics are ground using a milling machine (see picture below) which is connected to a water bath. Shredded plastics are then collected and dried. Finally, the shredded high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are pelletized using an extrusion machine. These pellets — made out of plastic waste from all over Accra — are then sold as feedstock to formal industries both in Ghana and globally that have the capability to produce plastics films.

The existing model of plastics micro-factories in Agbogbloshie deserves support and attention. In effect they perform a massive public service: cleaning up the city of Accra, by making profits from our plastic waste.

Grinding machine in Agbogbloshie
Grinding machine in Agbogbloshie

Mini-Kiln first prototype

Making a mobile oven, or mini-kiln; for melting plastics originally but whatever you need to bake. Pick or make the right caster wheels for the sort of mobility mini-kiln usage requires.

metal casters

mini-kiln with flexible tube to LPG cylinder attached.

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mini-kiln_parts

Plastics constitute a significant portion of the Agbogbloshie waste stream, moving through stages of collection, sorting (by type and colour), cleaning, shredding and even in some cases molding into pellets. (See Plastics blog post). With at least 7 micro-factories by our count, Agbogbloshie is a key part of the plastic recycling industry in Ghana, and integrally interconnected with both local and global production cycles. To date, the failure of Agbogbloshie’s industrial ecosystem to add value to plastic material recycled on-site is a lost opportunity for local manufacturing.

Building on our experiments with plastic during AMPQAMP and drawing on the knowledge and expertise of oven fabricators based on the ground in Agbogbloshie, we are now co-designing and prototyping a mini-kiln. This week, William Mensah completed fabrication of the first  prototype in Accra Timber Market,adjacent to Agbogbloshie. The mini-kiln fits the standard module of the AMP spacecraft and is one of the first tools from the AMP tool-set developed to plug into the community workshop.

mini-kiln in accra timber market, fiber insulation exposed before top sheet fixed in place.

The prototype, is composed essentially of a frame of angle bars,  inner and outer layers of sheet metal with a layer of what is locally called “fibre” (PUR foam insulation sourced from air-conditioner dismantling). We didn’t finish until evening, but couldn’t wait to test. Hence using shredded plastics from Agbogbloshie, we  made new recycled plastic tiles, heating the the plastics to their melting point, and allowing them to cool. We intend to carry out carry more of such low-high tech plastic experiments soon in our spacecraft. Stay tuned for more and be sure to share with us, your innovative ideas regarding plastic recycling.

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Plastic tiles made by using the mini-kiln
Plastic tiles made by using the mini-kiln (From the left: HDPE, PP and PET recycled plastics)

Notes:
+Need to add chimney, temperature gauge, and calibrated gas control.
+Cost compare with 2-module wide unit, cylindrical drum cast concrete or clay insulated.
+Link with rotational plastics moulding machine:feedback-enabled temperature controls.

Agbogbloshie Mobile phone surgery

Dis-assembly of mobile phones constitute an increasingly significant facet of the e-waste industry here in Agbogbloshie. Metals from these phones form part of the urban mined resource of the city, albeit not as ubiquitous as other equipment such as refrigerators, and microwaves.

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Dis-assembly of mobile phone by an e-waste worker in Agbogbloshie

As part of the process of making the AMP’s E-manuals, the team with its Agbogbloshie field agents and members of the AMP makers collective (Sam and Iddrisu), disassembled a mobile phone at Agbogbloshie. We made use of the most available tools, (mainly screw drivers owned by the e-waste workers themselves), and carefully took apart the phone, in a manner that preserved each component. We then identified and documented via photographs, each of these. Such hands-on dis-assembly activities enables the team (with diverse backgrounds), to understand better, the nature of the electronics that are in Agbogbloshie.

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Documented phone parts

As it is with other equipment in Agbogbloshie, mobile phones that arrive here are usually in a wide range of conditions. Those in fairly good condition are resold altogether or have their working parts sold to phone repairers(who troop in, in search of such working parts). Those that are in totally bad shape are scraped for constituent metals. It is common to find that, phones arriving here for dis-assembly already have missing parts and/or components such as batteries. According to the e-waste workers, these are sometimes removed by collectors before they reach Agbogbloshie. Some of the most valuable parts of the mobile phones inside Agbogbloshie are the screen and circuit boards. Once these and other parts are removed, they follow the same process as other e-waste and are either sold locally to phone repairers for re-use or to middle-men.

 

 

Jerry outreach

Could Agbogbloshie begin to supply low-cost upcycled computers to children in Old Fadama? Could this scope expand beyond this territory to other parts of Accra and to the under-privileged in Ghana? Could this net expand to cover the entire African continent? Imagine upcycled computers, supplied to all parts of the world from Agbogbloshie. There is a promising  future for this and needs to start somewhere.

As part of engaging the Agbogbloshie community and STEAM professionals, AMP organized a ‘maker workshop’ to teach e-waste workers how to make a Jerry and install software on it. After a rainy morning, the AMP team arrived in Agbogbloshie in the afternoon. Most of the work-spaces in the scrap yard were partially flooded. Being Friday, and a majority of the e-waste workers being Muslims, they had just arrived from the Friday afternoon prayers. Since prior arrangements had been made with Sam Sandow (AMP agent in Agbogbloshie) and Zack (E-waste worker), the workshop started in one of the computer shops in Agbogbloshie located near the entertainment center.  It is owned and operated by the Nigerian called ”Emeka”. The very same person from which components were sourced for the Jerry workshop in Kokrobite. The shop has shelves on which one would find hard drives,  mother boards, circuit boards and many others.

Emeka's computer shop in Agbogbloshie
Emeka’s computer shop in Agbogbloshie

Upon arrival, the team pitched tent and Daniel (AMP intern from  creativity group KNUST) briefly introduced the Jerry concept to the community.  After we explained the concept to Emeka, a monitor, keyboard and mouse, were made available for us to use.  He also gave us a compact disc (CD) with an operating system. The team  installed it and  allowed the participants to familiarize themselves with the Jerry whilst interactively exchanging ideas with the AMP makers collective.

It’s highly informative and exciting to think that, these same e-waste workers who are among the most marginalized and least literate are actually computer literate- and that some of them are even self-thought. This reveals how much youthful potential is being lost to class stereotyping and the resultant marginalization.

The team later presented the concept of the Quadcoper to the workers by Samuel Amoako (AMP intern and student from KNUST). It was then flown on the football field to demonstrate how it will help AMP map Agbogbloshie and also monitor air pollution levels.

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AMP collective on the football field in Agbogbloshie…About to fly the Quadcopter

All through history, some of the most fascinating discoveries have come about as a result of conversations between two unlikely parties or people from highly divergent backgrounds who would ordinarily not interact. The creation of a community space where such interaction can happen and spark new genius via the crafting of the  ground breaking ideas and objects is one of the central objectives of AMP.

As usual, the workers were busy with their activities: dismantling, loading trucks with scrap metals etc… but some were able to spend time with us and expressed their interest in making one themselves. One of the common questions asked was..whether the plastic will melt when the computer overheats? We answered them by discussing the physical properties of the type of plastic used, such as its melting temperature which is about 130oC and it’s combustion point which is between 340oC to 380oC. Another major concern was the market for the product and the price one should be sold. In effect they appreciated the fact that, parts of old computers can be sourced and used to make a server that works and are cheaper. The AMP team hopes to transfer the knowledge in assembling Jerry computer to making a Jerry Laptop (‘JerryTop’) in the near future.

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Listening to Agbogbloshie

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Sam interviewing e-waste workers in Agbogbloshie

Agbogbloshie has suffered incredibly from the single story syndrome, imposed on it by the media and those with the opportunity to tell its story. Beyond the e-waste, the burning and the hardship, that usually characterises the gruesome descriptions of this urban enclave and its surroundings, there are several industries and practices within this urban site that gives it the kind of rich urban flavour that the space has. One major way of way of dealing with this threat of the single story, is to engage directly with a people. To see through their eyes and to feel what they feel. At AMP, we have made it our lifetime goal, to change first, the story of Agbogbloshie, for “he wields power over you who tells your story”.

In the last few months, the AMP team have sought to hear the stories of e-waste workers in Agbogbloshie through the use of interviews. For us, these are the voices that should be heard. It is our primary aim, through these interviews, to give a voice to the voiceless, to inform the E-waste workers and invite them to be a part of the AMP makers collective. The team recruited and trained two of the e-waste workers (Sam & Iddrisou) to help with the process and they have been engaged in all AMPs activities for the past five months. They participated fully and performed tasks from translation to administering the questionnaires themselves as well as photographing the work spaces of the interviewees. As part of the interview process the team continued to map the e-waste landscape, this time, with specific reference to the interviewees and the location of their workspaces. From this data a detailed map of the Agbogbloshie ecosystem is being constructed. The process is helping the team better understand the working conditions of e-waste workers, the various relationships that exist between them, their future aspirations and the nature of the Agbogbloshie site itself. Hopefully, this will help the team better integrate their needs into the project. So far, over 500 workers have been interviewed. The interviews, which started in May 2014 and are still ongoing and have four main areas of interest:

  1. E-Waste Expertise 2. Training   3. Health Awareness and Practices  4. Aspirations

So far, certain patterns are beginning to emerge- majority of the population in Agbogbloshie are from the Northern part of Ghana especially towns and villages near Tamale, the lingua franca of Agbogbloshie is Dagbani, though some have good command of the English language, majority do not. Most of them dropped out of school at the Junior high school and primary (P5 & P6) levels.

E-waste workers engage in various forms of purchasing of equipment, disassembly, weighing and sale, and provide several tons of urban mined materials like copper.  There are also many industrious and entrepreneurial individuals who make highly useful objects. Indeed, Agbogbloshie is more than just an e-waste dump. During the survey we took  photographs  of some of the activities that go on in the yard and here is a field note.

Despite all of these very positive aspects of Agbogbloshie, there still remains the blight of filth and cable burning which means the risk of contamination and disease are highly pervasive. In general, there is a fair level of awareness about health risks amongst the e-waste workers. Thanks to the ubiquitous media coverage of that specific issue, e-waste workers are at least vaguely aware of the adverse effects of burning on their health. They however said that since it was their job, they felt as if they had no option than to do it. In reaction to this discovery on health, the AMP team have designed a utility shirt for the workers. When the second prototype of the utility shirt (the spacesuit) was showed them, e-waste workers insisted on the face gear (with possible embedded gas mask). It was observed that, workers in Agbogbloshie start their day early with the cart pushers, moving out early in the morning to source electronic equipment. Our discoveries provide us with information about Agbogbloshie but this is helping us understand the workings of informal communities, and people who are surviving on the “peripheries” of our awareness and yet contribute significantly to our lives. More than just an e-waste dump, Agbogbloshie is a huge open air manu-factory.

Made in Agbogbloshie

Agbogbloshie is a challenging site. As a space, Agbogbloshie is sensory overload: soil and water darkened from pollution exude noxious vapours under the heat of the sun; toxic fumes emanate from burning sites; the clamour of slamming hammers and banging chisels fills the air… But that is only part of the Agbogbloshie story.

A closer look at the ecosystem of the giant self-organized open-air factory shows that Agbogbloshie is about more than destruction alone. A parallel set of activities support the livelihood of onsite workers: food and entertainment spaces — Agbogbloshie has both a cinema and foosball tables! Numerous mosques dot the landscape (we found a total of 14 mosques in the area surveyed) serving five times a day the faithful that are working nearby. Since believers must take ablution before praying, water circulates in plastic tea pots from water tanks, the few municipal water supplies and public toilets/showers that are sprinkled around the site. Workers also engage in making: making tools (such as chisels) to disassemble e-waste or other items into scrap that has a resalable value, making machines (such as a furnace blowing system using a bicycle wheel) to make these tools, and making items (aluminum pots and coal pots using metals harvested from refrigerators) to sell outside the boundaries of the site.

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Furnace blower at a blacksmith workshop making chisels for e-waste disassembly

We love the hand-crafted bicycle tyre-powered blowers used to ventilate locally-fabricated furnaces for cottage industry smelters (seen in various places). They are a powerful example of the on-going knowledge transfer within Agbogbloshie and testament to the intertwined nature of making and technology development. Exactly what AMP seeks to further leverage in Agbogbloshie.

Here is the link to our Flickr album Made in Agbogbloshie. While (e-)waste processing is crude and hasty to maximize profit (informal e-waste workers earn a higher than average income compared to informal workers overall), we certainly see all the parts necessary to make the machine, the self-organized open-air factory, run smoothly. Making is just part of it.

WEEE basic understanding AMP Manuals

One of AMP’s core objectives is the compilation and design of a “waste” electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) manual. The main purpose of this is the provision of vital information for the AMP maker collective comprising of STEAM students/graduates (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) and Agbogbloshie e-waste workers.

For several months, we worked on the print version of the manual–a series of individual manuals for each electrical and electrical equipment studied–which has undergone several design iterations (see image below). We collected data from a number of articles and our own fieldwork (to learn the value in Ghana Cedis of each item brought to and dismantled in Agbogbloshie). We designed a manual for each piece of equipment studied so it fits a single folded sheet of paper. This makes it simpler and more user friendly. In the coming days, these manuals as they are so far, will be hosted online so makers and people knowledgeable about electrical and electronic equipment could contribute to them.

The manual is organized so as to give information on material composition, parts and components, hazardous materials, urban mining opportunities, tools for dis-assembly, steps for dis-assembly, safety gear, and opportunities and ideas for remaking.

Svet Lightyear visitPicture of the AMP Team showing the manual to Svet from the Lightyear Foundation.

This task is a staggering one because it should cater to the needs of people pertaining to different social categories, each with different understanding and knowledge. On the one hand are the STEAM professionals, educated and used to reading guides and who may even love manuals and on the other hand, the e-waste workers, predominantly uneducated and having a general disinclination towards anything remotely related to guidebooks or for that matter, books. This means they would both relate differently to a typical guidebook. Although this may sound stereotypical, it is a truth with which the AMP team is confronted.

powershift Students at the recently ended PowerShift conference viewing the latest version of the manuals
Students at the recently ended PowerShift conference viewing the latest version of the manuals

To navigate these murky waters, the team decided to go beyond the traditional printed manual in a foreign language and to in addition to this make to video manuals which can be housed on servers and broadcast inside the spacecraft. These will be targeted specifically at the e-waste workers, and put together by some of them, in collaboration with their STEAM counterparts and will be done in Dagbani ( the Lingua franca as it were in Agbogbloshie). In addition to this, makers and/or hackers around the country and the world will have access in open source fashion to all the manuals online, as part of the AMP digital platform.

Image showing the various iterations of the AMP manual and some sources of inspiration
Image showing the various iterations of the AMP manual and some sources of inspiration

In the coming years, AMP hopes to see this manual evolve into a highly informative periodical, providing vital knowledge for a local and international network of young passionate makers and hackers. A thrilling thought indeed!!!

Manual-fridge sample_Page_2Manual-fridge sample_Page_1

The Sound of Plastic

There is more than e-waste processing happening in the open-air recycling factory: plastic processing represents a significant portion of Agbogbloshie’s ecosystem and economy.

Woman in the plastics business
Woman in the plastics business

The plastic processing chain involves various actors (male and female — contrary to e-waste processing which does not employ female workers) and machines:

  • Collectors get plastic waste from all around the city and temporarily store them onsite. Dismantlers scrap plastic out of e-waste or other items.
  • Men and women sort out plastics based on empirical and heuristic approaches: they separate plastics according to their thickness, malleability (thermoplastics are malleable and can be recycled, while thermoset plastics are not), and by the sound plastics make when workers bang on them with a screwdriver!
  • In our interaction, workers in Agbogbloshie did not know about the resin identification code system. However, as observed many locally-made plastics lacked labels, as well as scrap pieces of plastic detached from primary parts in which the label is inset. Thus, if the processing is carried out in a hasty and crude manner, then having resin identification codes may not be overly helpful.

As we learned by watching the documentary film The Electronic Tragedy by Dannoritzer Cosima, in other parts of the globe where informal plastic processing also occurs, heuristic approaches include burning plastics with a lighter and smelling the burnt material – each type of plastic has a different burning temperature. This strategy is more dangerous for the workers’ health than local methods of differentiating between types based on the sound of plastic.

Plastics sorted by color
Plastics sorted by color
  • In Agbogbloshie, it is common knowledge that television cases (made of non-recyclable thermoset plastics) cannot be sold for recycling. And this is also the reason why the item is often used for storage or as a stool. The local workers separate plastics into three main categories (while there are seven identified categories of plastics. PET (bottles) and PVC (pipes) are in addition): “rubber” (e.g. polypropylene, PP), “gallon” (e.g. high density polyethylene, HDPE), and “plastic” (not recyclable). In all, they process Polypropylene PP, High Density Polyethylene HDPE, Low Density Polyethylene LDPE, Polyethylene Theraphalate PET, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), and other types such as PP-MD20, and PP-TD30.
  • Women remove labels and caps of PET containers (water bottles for example; water bottle c­­­aps are made of another type of plastic). Workers sort recyclable plastics by colors before (loud) shredding using locally fabricated shredding machines. They then sieve the shredded plastics before washing it. The plastic is now ready to be sold to industries – local and global!

Prices vary according to the type of plastic and depends on the market. For our plastic experiments, we purchased the Kg of shredded PET for 3 Cedis and the Kg of PP for 2 Cedis. The workers specialized in plastic processing were rather excited about the business opportunity afforded by our plastic experiments (bricks and tiles made with PP and PET) and we look forward to this knowledge transfer.

Find more pictures on Flickr.

Spacecraft . foundation pads

assembly of dry stone aggregate foundation pad with recycled car tires and concrete cap
assembly of foundation pad, post-excavation; dry stone aggregate fill inside recycled car tire stack with concrete cap
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dig a hole 1x1x1 meters volume below-grade; do not eat food next to excavation if contaminated site like Agbogbloshie
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stack recycled car tires with side walls cut out and dry stone aggregate infill, incremental backfill with site material
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one trip of 5/8in granite stone aggregate used for foundation pads plus site fill

https://3dwarehouse.sketchup.com/embed.html?mid=udcfe67e3-00f2-4bce-b968-13c37efca5e3&width=580&height=326

Archibots: Re-making Agbogbloshie (intro session)

The first session of the Archibots workshop came off as scheduled on the May 30th 2014. The event was well attended by people from various disciplinary backgrounds. There were engineers, architects, CAD technicians, business men & women and lecturers as well as from various nationalities, such as Spain and the Netherlands. This was the introductory session for Archibots, a design workshop to prototype architecture robots for Agbogbloshie.  As part of the event, all three collaborating organizations (tap, AMP and MESH) made presentations on what they do. AMP co-lead DK Osseo-Asare, introduced participants to Agbogbloshie E-waste circuitry, which is the context for the architecture robots to be designed and the key design concepts as far as AMP is concerned. Some of the videos that were selected to provide inspiration for participants can be found here . The team is eagerly awaiting the next phase which is the design session scheduled for June 7th 2014 at Hub Accra. This promises to be just as exciting as the May 30th event. Thanks to our friend and ally, media partners MESH Ghana for compiling footage of the event, which can be found at Archibots: Remaking Agbogbloshie.

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