where do our electronics go at the end of their life?

A FILM BY DAVID FEDELE (20mins/2012)


E-WASTE (electronic waste) - old or discarded electronic devices or their parts.

In developing countries, the demand for second-hand electronic equipment is quickly growing, due to an increasing connection to the “global world”, and the inability to afford brand new products.

Every year, around 200,000 tonnes of second-hand and condemned electrical goods arrive in Ghana, West Africa, mainly received from the “developed” world.

Many of these electronics are nearing the end of their life, and will soon be discarded as e-waste. A significant volume of electronics actually arrive as e-waste, exported illegally as second hand goods.

e-wasteland is set entirely at the Agbogbloshie slum in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Situated on the banks of the highly polluted Korle Lagoon, Agbogbloshie is home to over 30,000 settlers, mainly from the poorer Northern regions of Ghana. It is also home to the largest e-waste dump site in Africa. Generally uneducated and with few employable skills, many of the settlers at Agbogbloshie are forced to make a small living salvaging and recycling e-waste.

Interview with filmmaker David Fedele

Q. The film is practically a 'silent film', there is no dialogue but rather a visual experience of life in a slum where people garner a living by salvaging metals from e-waste. Why did you choose this method?

A. I had seen a number of journalistic documentaries that focused on the people working with e-waste, and portrayed them as victims, using poor interviews and voice-overs, and I was extremely conscious that I didn’t want to do this. I wanted to visually present a particular environment, attempt to show it as truthfully as possible, and give people the responsibility to think about the issues themselves.

I wanted to make a film about the e-waste, rather than the people that are involved in the work. I want people to contemplate where "things" end up at the end of their life. For me, that is what the film is about - where THINGS go at the end of their life - it is as much a film about "things" as about "people".

For that reason, I wanted to show many visuals of things getting smashed and broken down. I attempted to show that these expensive “things” that we acquire, once they get old or broken, are nothing more than bits of plastic, metal, chemicals and other waste.

That's what struck me the more time I spent at Agbogbloshie. I saw a photocopier, but all they saw was copper, metal, computer boards ... and a whole lot of plastic in the way stopping them from reaching these things! And it is ALL for money. The photocopier ONLY has value because its PARTS are valuable to someone. But as a photocopier, it is totally worthless.

So I guess I am trying to subtly show some of my thoughts about our "consumer" society, and these "things" that we must have. But at the end of their life, they are nothing special at all - just a whole lot of PARTS.

Q. Some of the images in the film are almost surreal like something out of a Hollywood post-apocalyptic film. What was the experience like of filming in Agbogbloshie for months?

Filming was extremely difficult, as the conditions are appalling. The area is constantly covered in thick, toxic smoke from the burning of electrical cables that goes on all day and night. It was extremely hot and humid and physically and mentally challenging.

Apart from the conditions, I was constantly challenged ethically and morally about the concept of filming in a slum and a dumpsite. Understandably, many people didn’t want me to film them, as they were ashamed of the work that they did, and the conditions they live in. So I had to find a compromise between what I thought was important to show, while respecting the privacy of the people that work and live there.

Communication was also extremely difficult as most of the people at Agbogbloshie speak very little English, if any. However I was very much embraced by the boys that allowed me to film them, and we would sit together, eat together and drink together. It is an extraordinary thing – these boys, who have virtually nothing, would invite me to share their food at every meal.

Q. How does this e-waste end up in Ghana in the first place?

A. Very little of the electronics that end up at Agbogbloshie are actually produced in Ghana. Every year, over 200,000 tonnes (200 million kilograms) of electronic equipment arrives into the country, mainly from the developed world. They generally arrive in containers, transported by ship to the main port of Tema in Accra, the capital of Ghana.

The demand for electronic equipment is growing rapidly, due to an increasing connection to the global electronic world. Initially the concept of receiving second-hand electronics was embraced, as it “bridged the digital divide”, and allowed people that couldn’t afford brand new electronics the opportunity to access cheaper computers and other devices.

But most of the second-hand electronic goods that arrive in Ghana are old and nearing the end of their life, and generally within one to two years will be discarded as e-waste. There is no facility in Ghana to manage the disposal of e-waste in an environmentally sound manner, so inevitably most of it will end up at Agbogbloshie.

It is illegal to export/import e-waste, but Ghana has an unregulated and unrestricted import regime for second-hand electronic goods, so e-waste can enter the country under the guise of second-hand goods without restriction or detection.

Q. Most of the people working in this trade are young men. Why?

A. Almost all of the people working in electronic scraps are from the same language region in the North of Ghana. They are mainly boys and young men, generally uneducated and with few employable skills, and are drawn to the capital city, Accra, to try to “find money”.

A lot of these boys are sent by their family in the North, which is mainly a farming and agricultural area, to make money to send back to their family. Also a lot of the boys have only one or no parents alive, and are forced to make a living for themselves.

Most have family or friends living at the Agbogbloshie slum, so this is their first point of contact when they arrive. And the easiest way for them to try to make a little bit of money to put food in their stomach is to work salvaging and recycling the e-waste.

Women and girls don’t work in the electronic scrap yard, but make money by “supporting” the men and boys. They mainly sell food and water around the working areas and inside the slum.

Q. Burning and dismantling e-waste can be incredibly dangerous as you note at the end of the film, releasing toxic metals and chemicals. Are the people involved in this trade aware of the health risks?

Generally the people involved in recycling e-waste at Agbogbloshie have absolutely no idea about any of the health risks involved.

When the people arrive at Agbogbloshie, they have NOTHING. They live on a day-by-day basis, and basically will do whatever is required to make a little bit of money, just to survive. The last thing they are concerned about is their health.

So the first thing is that they are not educated to be aware that this work is extremely dangerous and toxic. The second is that even if they are aware of this, they don’t really have a choice.

And as the health risks are not necessarily immediate, and can affect them over a long period of time, they are just dismissed as not being important, as the critical thing is to survive today, not to worry about tomorrow.

Q. Were you ever concerned for your own health?

That’s a good question … yes and no. It’s a strange thing when you decide to undertake a project such as this. You understand that there are inherent risks involved, but once you decide to actually go and make the film, you need to put these to the side a little bit.

I was constantly aware of the health risks. The primary area where I was filming was down-wind to the main burning site, and was almost permanently covered in toxic smoke. The smell is unimaginable, and even now when I watch the film, I can still smell the smoke.

I also totally underestimated what it would be like walking around and filming at a dumpsite. Without being too graphic, the entire area is basically an open toilet. I didn’t want to film too much of this as I didn’t feel it was relevant to my film, but without fail everyone that I spoke to that lived and worked at Agbogbloshie, agreed that the entire area is not suitable for human habitation.

I knew that the film I wanted to make was an observational film, rather than an investigative report. And to observe you must spend time. I guess you just try to find that fine line between making the best possible project that you can, and being concerned with your own health.

Q. Given that this is a hugely complex problem, do you have any recommendations for solving it?

A. E-waste disposal and recycling is an extremely complex and complicated issue, without any easy solutions. However there are definitely things that can and should be done to minimise the environmental and human harm that currently exists.

Firstly, I believe that there must be much stricter rules and enforcement in stopping the direct importation of e-waste into developing countries, such as Ghana.

However even if this was stopped or reduced, there is still going to be a huge volume of e-waste generated from the legitimate importation of second-hand electronic goods, and locally generated e-waste.

In Ghana, there is no proper management or infrastructure in place for the environmentally sound disposal of e-waste. It is essential that the government acknowledges the huge and growing issue of e-waste, and addresses this to ensure that e-waste can be recycled in a responsible manner, both for the environment and the people involved in the recycling.

In a bigger global picture however, I believe that companies should be forced to take much more responsibility for their products once they reach the end of their lifetime, and make it easier for consumers to recycle their products locally. If a company is happy to “introduce” a product into the world, they must be forced to take responsibility for this product, including its safe and environmentally sound disposal

Q. Anything the average person can do to help?

It is essential that we understand and appreciate that we make decisions every day that directly or indirectly affect others elsewhere on the planet.

The reality is that electronics are an important, necessary and growing part of today’s society, which we are all part of. We live in a crazy world of consumerism, where we are constantly bombarded with new products and updated electronic devices. We are told that we “must” have this and “can’t do without” that, but we are not as openly made aware of the consequences of this continual sequence of buying, discarding, and buying again.

So I would say the most important thing that we can do is to take responsibility for our decisions and actions, and to realise that we don’t necessarily have to participate in this cycle of continually upgrading our electronics. To inform ourselves as much as possible about where things come from, and where things go at the end of their life.

And particularly regarding old electronics, the simplest thing that people can do is to ask questions about how the device is going to be discarded, and to ensure that it is going to be recycled in a responsible and environmentally sound manner.

- Exceprt of an interview with Jeremy Hance from Mongabay.