Short Documentary Shows Toxic Trail of "Recycled" E-Waste Leads Overseas

e-waste dumping ground ghana photo
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A man sorts e-waste in Guiyu, China. Photo courtesy of Allison Cross.

Ever wonder what happens to all your old PCs, broken keyboards and ink cartridges? If you take your electronics to recyclers, you probably have visions of workers in well-ventilated buildings wearing masks and gloves as they take apart the toxic components of your electronics ... But that's not the reality.

Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, a 20-minute documentary that recently aired on PBS's FRONTLINE/World (you can view it online), reveals a shocking amount of e-waste from North America ends up in the developing world where children and adults scavenge for components they can sell or melt down motherboards for gold scrap.

The doc is the work of Frontline correspondent Peter Klein and a group of graduate students at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. The journalists set out to follow e-trash trail and it took them first to Ghana, then to China and India. I e-mailed Allison Cross, a friend who worked on the documentary, to ask her a few questions about how the story unfolded.

TreeHugger: Why did your class want to tell the story of e-waste?
Allison Cross
: We chose to pursue the story of e-waste for many reasons. It's a multifaceted, global issue, so we had no doubt every member of the class could play a role in developing the complex story. Shipping containers full of e-waste regularly leave the port of Vancouver after being filled by area recyclers, so our location on the West Coast made it easy to explore this aspect of the story. As well, electronic waste—discarded computers, burning circuit boards and plastic scraps—is very visual, so the topic worked well for a short documentary television segment. It's also a very accessible story for a North American audience. Nearly every household owns a TV or a computer, but few people have any idea what happens to these items when they recycle them.

TH: What sorts of threats to the environment and health do e-waste dumps and "recycling" sites present in developing countries?
: Many electronics and the batteries inside contain toxic chemicals, like lead. The electronics also contain small amounts of precious metals, like gold and copper. When workers in developing countries tear apart the electronics and burn them, to access the precious metals inside, they do so without wearing any protective equipment. The fumes are toxic and remnants of the chemicals leech into groundwater. The toxins can cause cancer, skin rashes and neurological problems in the workers, as well as the people who live in areas close to the e-waste dumps.

TH: When you traveled to China, what were you most surprised to see?
: Before going to China, I had read extensively about how North American e-waste ends up there. But while I was filming one day in Hong Kong, I was still somewhat surprised to see a sack filled with empty printer cartridges that came from North America. The sack had the name of a company from the state of Georgia in the U.S. I was surprised at how easily we located evidence that e-waste from North America was being dumped in Hong Kong. I traveled to Hong Kong and Mainland China, and two other groups traveled to India and Ghana.

TH: What was the biggest surprise in the development of this story?
: The biggest surprise was the discovery of sensitive information from the American military contractor Northrop Grumman. The team is Ghana bought used hard drives from a local market and once we arrived back in Vancouver, we had the drives analyzed and were able to extract this information. It was shocking how easy it was to get our hands on what should be protected information.