Environment

Stunning Photos Capture Devastation Caused by Electronic Waste Across the Globe

Eighty percent of the hazardous waste is generated in developed countries, but is shipped to developing nations for disposal.

A lot has been written about electronic waste. In 2012, 50 million tons of e-waste was generated worldwide, and with the proliferation of smartphones, smart watches and other tech gear, that number will only increase. United Nations officials estimate that the volume of e-waste generated worldwide is expected to climb by 33 percent by 2017, to 65 million tons. Those numbers say a lot, but sometimes the pictures say much more.

People burning electronic scraps at the Agbogbloshie e-waste dump in Accra, Ghana. The Guardian described the fumes as “head-pounding.” (Photo Credit: Bit Rot Project)

If unused electronic goods aren’t gathering dust in the garage, they are either recycled (about 30 percent of the time) or simply thrown away—out of sight, out of mind. But as you scroll through this post on your smartphone or computer, it’s important to remember that modern luxuries have a price.

While e-waste in the U.S. makes up only 2 percent of the country’s municipal solid waste stream, it’s a much more prevalent and devastating problem to less affluent countries, as demonstrated by these haunting images from Italian photographer Valentino Bellini’s ongoing Bit Rot Project.

“About 80 percent of the e-waste produced in developed countries (North America and Europe on the top of the list) is not disposed of in situ, but shipped, most of the time illegally, to developing countries on cargo ships, where it is illegally disposed of,” Bit Rot said.

A boy in New Delhi, India boils old transistors in metal pots. Boiling the transistors melts away the plastic so the metal parts can be sold. (Photo Credit: Bit Rot Project)

As the latest products come along and desktop computers, MP3 players and landlines become obsolete, this gadget-driven fervor has generated mountains of toxic trash that poison people, animals and the planet. It’s not just old Blackberrys and MacBooks, it’s everything from old refrigerators, televisions, toys and more.

“Especially in countries like India, China and some African regions where the technology industry is growing fast,” Bit Rot said. “It is hazardous waste, containing dozens of substances dangerous to human health and the environment; it is hard to be sustainably disposed of and it needs a costly processing technique to make it recyclable.”

A woman in Lahore, Pakistan takes apart imported electronic devices. (Photo Credit: Bit Rot Project)

While illegal electronic waste dumping also occurs in the U.S., the appeal of sending e-waste overseas comes down to lower labor costs and fewer regulations. According to a 2013 United Nations report, China is “grappling with the reality of an estimated 20 percent annual rise in domestically generated e-waste combined with a role as one of the planet’s primary dumping grounds for global e-waste—a massive environmental, social and economic burden.”

The southeastern town of Guiyu, China is a major e-wastebasket. CNN reported that Guiyu workers burn or process tech gear with hydrochloric acid to recover valuable metals like copper and steel. The process releases toxic heavy metals like lead, beryllium and cadmium into the environment. Hydrocarbon ashes have also polluted the air, water and soil.

A man rips up electronic equipment in his backyard in Yaocuowei, China. He lives by the town of Guiyu, home to thousands of businesses that process e-waste, causing devastating toxic pollution. (Photo Credit: Bit Rot Project)

Where does all this salvaged tech junk go? Well, back into many homes. “We sell this plastic to Foxconn,” a e-waste worker in Guiyu told CNN. Foxconn is a Taiwanese company that manufactures products for many global electronics companies such as Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

“The commercialization process and the capitalistic valorization created a true ‘waste economy,'” Bit Rot observes. “This extends the logic behind profit and exploitation even to those scraps that it had produced, creating a never-ending cycle that profits from its own death.”

The Odaw River in Accra, Ghana is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Much of the waste comes from the Agbogbloshie e-waste landfill. (Photo Credit: Bit Rot Project)

We can change our nasty modern habits, but it’s very likely a long uphill battle. “Strengthening and enforcing insufficient international laws would thwart massive profits,” Bit Rot wrote. “Disposing of a PC by sending it to a dumpster in Africa costs $2, while it would cost $20 to sustainably recycle it.”

So what can be done? The UN’s Step initiative is tackling the world’s behemoth e-waste crisis. The Obama administration also has “serious concerns about unsafe handling of used electronics, especially discarded electronics or e-waste, both domestically and overseas, that results in harm to human health and the environment,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia told U.S. News.

Americans are also becoming more conscious of their own e-waste footprint. According to recent data from Recon Analytics, in 2014, the average American replaced his or her mobile phone every 26.5 months, a vast improvement from every 18 months in 2007.

To responsibly dispose of your old tech gear, find a e-cycling center near you.

Lorraine Chow is a freelance writer and reporter based in South Carolina.

Stay Ahead of the Rest
Sign Up for AlterNet's Daily Newsletter
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Rights & Liberties
Education
Drugs
Economy
Environment
Labor
Food
World
Politics
Investigation
Personal Health
Water
Media