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Ivory Coast tackling its toxic mobile waste problem

Waste and pollution in water Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The toxins in discarded mobile phones have been leaching into Abidjan's already polluted waters

Adou Felicien negotiates with a customer through the wire grille that serves as a window at the front of his mobile phone repair shop.

There is little room inside his wooden shack in the heart of Treichville, a commune in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's economic capital.

Every available floor and surface space is plastered with old pieces of mobile phones, electrical parts and wires. He is one of hundreds of mobile phone repair men dotted around the city. For a small sum they can fix almost anything.

But as phones get cheaper and new models flood the market, many people here are more interested in buying flashy new smartphones costing as little as $8 (£5) in Abidjan's "marche noir", or black market, than fixing their old phones.

So what happens to all the discarded models?

Murky waters

"We throw [them] in the bin," says Mr Felicien.

Even with hundreds of repair shops like his, thousands of phones and phone parts in Ivory Coast are being thrown away.

A lot of them end up in Ebrie Lagoon in the heart of the city, where their toxins, such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and chlorine, can leach into the calm but murky waters.

Image caption Phone repairer Adou Felicien says old mobiles are simply thrown "in the bin"

It is the end of the journey for much of Abidjan's waste. It either festers there or gets washed out to sea.

Either way, the stink is often almost unbearable. From afar, the lagoon looks serene and beautiful, but get a little closer and the muck lying on the surface is clearly visible: tyres, plastic bags, electrical parts and a myriad of unidentifiable objects.

The odour - a mixture of sewage, rotting food and generally foul-smelling stuff - is incredible.

And this is part of the problem, according to Georges K Kouadio, the deputy general of the Environment Ministry.

The mobile phone waste, if not dealt with, can become a toxic hazard.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Boys play in the polluted water of Abidjan's Ebrie Lagoon

"All of this electrical waste has chemicals inside them," he says.

"If we do not take care of them properly, or use them in the right way, they pose a risk to the health of the population."

Waste into cash

But as people in Ivory Coast begin to realise old mobile phones could actually bring in a bit of cash, things are beginning to change.

Constant Akim waits patiently outside Adou Felicien's shop; he props up his motorbike and pops his head through the wooden doorway.

He works for Mesad, an Ivorian charity that focuses on health, education and development. It also runs Ivory Coast's first mobile phone recycling collection centre.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMobile phone waste can become a toxic hazard

Mr Akim's job is to drive around the city collecting disused phone parts from the repair shops.

"At first they were surprised," he says - people did not believe that he would pay them, per kilogram, for their waste.

"But now they're happy we get rid of it for them. It's just a little [money] but this way, it works."

I ask Mr Felicien how much he makes, on average, per week.

He laughs but does not want to say, uncomfortable with people knowing he makes money out of their newly valuable waste.

"Somehow they are useful to us and we are also profitable to them," he says.

Image caption Constant Akim runs Ivory Coast's first mobile phone recycling centre

Instead, he tells me they no longer throw anything away and, at the same time, have stopped worrying about the children in the community picking through the dangerous waste.

Recycling to France

Mr Akim packs the sacks of phone parts he has collected from Mr Felicien into a box secured on the back of his bike, and then drives off to the recycling centre.

The staff there are busy sorting through thousands of old phones.

Isobelle Gabou, the director of Mesad's Electronic Waste Project shows me around. Everything is separated - the plastic, the batteries, the screens, the electrical parts and the precious metals - before being weighed, packed up, then sent to France for recycling.

"It's really important to recycle, because more and more we're realising we are suffering from diseases that we can't explain," says Ms Gabou.

Image caption The old mobiles are broken up into their constituent parts

"Maybe it's due to water pollution, as that's where they dump everything," she says, adding that it also means people can make a bit of extra money.

"We are not a rich country. We are a developing country. So for me it is very important because it will enable people to be doing better too," she says.

Dumping ground

The first shipment left the port in July, and the second is due to leave at the beginning of next year.

The project is funded by mobile phone operator, Orange, and this centre is now their fifth across Africa.

West Africa, and in particular Ghana, is widely known as the main dumping ground for electronic waste.

Developed countries ship their growing piles of refrigerators, TVs, computers and phones to the other side of the world and simply replace them with the latest models.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Pollution is a big problem in Ivory Coast - here, fishermen are seen removing waste plastic from their catch

Ivory Coast is doing its part to turn this around, but recycling facilities like this are still very rare across Africa.

In reality, most electrical waste still ends up polluting landfill sites on the edge of cities and towns.

This centre has already collected and shipped 10 tonnes of mobile phone waste to Europe, but that is still thought to be less than 1% of the country's total.

It barely makes a dent in the world's rapidly increasing mountain of electrical waste.

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