On the e-waste trail

An investigation into the toxic trail of illegal e-waste that is ushered from the first to the third world.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available online.

Each month, several hundred containers of e-waste from consuming countries in the West arrive in Agbogbloshie, a former fishing village in Accra, Ghana, which has become one of the world’s largest e-waste dumps, causing pollution and irreparable environmental damage.

Every year, up to 50 million tons of electronic waste – computers, television sets, mobile phones, household appliances – are discarded in the developed world. Since recycling is costly, around 75 percent of this waste is shipped to countries like India, China or Ghana, where it is dumped illegally, polluting the environment and affecting the lives of those forced to live with it.

Mike Anane grew up near Agbogbloshie and is one of Ghana’s most experienced environmental journalists. In this film, he investigates the growing illegal e-waste trail from Europe to Africa and Asia, confronting the failing systems of control.

The investigation begins in Europe – the UK, Spain, France, Germany, and Brussels – takes us to Asia – Hong Kong, China – and to the US, finally ending in Agbogbloshie, to reveal how large amounts of e-waste are diverted from the legal recycling circuits, using false paperwork and facilitated by many of those in the know turning a blind eye.

The film also shows how the irresponsible ‘urban mining’ of e-waste in Asian dumpsites is flaunting health and safety regulations and creating unexpected problems for the manufacturers of new electronics. And it shows how the new consumers in developing countries are exacerbating the problem by adding their own e-waste to the illegal imports.

Filmmaker’s view

By Cosima Dannoritzer

Since its release in 2010, my previous documentary The Light Bulb Conspiracy has been screened at over 100 international festivals, universities, conferences and grassroots events.

During the debates following the film, two questions steadily recurred: firstly, how was Mike Anane in Ghana getting on with his plans to stop the illegal e-waste shipments to his country? Secondly, how is it possible that such enormous quantities of e-waste are leaking out of Europe and the US, if the practice is illegal and controls are supposedly in place?

Chinese workers at a recycling workshop in Guiyu, China [Lu Guang/Al Jazeera]

Spectators, some of whom are perfectly aware of the statistics regarding e-waste and who try to recycle responsibly during their daily lives, were visibly moved and shocked after seeing the images of children burning e-waste in Ghana and harming their health in the process.

Hearing a statistic about waste production is not the same as observing the human suffering caused by illegal dumping. I felt that here was an information gap to be closed, with a real potential of bringing two worlds closer – the consumer in a rich country, and the ‘recycler’ at the receiving end in the third world, both inhabitants of the same planet.

At the same time, Mike in Ghana was telling me that the amount of e-waste arriving was increasing steadily – when we filmed the sequences with him in Accra in 2010, an average of 300 containers of e-waste were arriving every month.

At the beginning of 2011, the number of containers had gone up to 500 a month. Now, the average is up to 600 a month, with a noticeable increase in the months just after Christmas when many consumers are discarding gadgets after having found new ones under the Christmas tree.

Using this as a starting point, our investigations did not only take us back to the dumpsite in Agbogbloshie, but also all the way to China where whole towns are literally drowning in e-waste, which is brought in from all over the world.

One of the most revealing conclusions for me personally was that e-waste is not merely a matter of negligence and lack of awareness but that we are dealing with a complex chain of corruption and failing controls which starts in Europe and the US and reaches all way across the globe, wherever richer countries are consuming and forcing their waste on poorer countries.

Mike Anane investigates the e-waste dumpsite of Agbogbloshie in Accra [Media 3.14/Al Jazeera]

It is also not just a matter of finding a place to dump but e-waste trafficking has become an international business that is netting millions to those involved.

In spite of this, people everywhere are fighting against the practice.

We met fascinating and dedicated characters who kindly opened their doors to us, from customs officials and law enforcers, to activists who are based all over the world, be it a Spanish consumers’ association setting up an experiment using satellite trackers, a British NGO going undercover to reveal the extent of the corruption, to environmentalists at the receiving end in China and Africa fighting for new laws.

But while it was encouraging to see that the fight against e-waste trafficking has turned global, it is also worrying to see that the task seems increasingly insurmountable. For instance, 63,000 containers arrive in Hong Kong harbour every day. It is beyond even the most dedicated customs official to check all of them for e-waste.

By the time a consignment of old fridges, monitors and TV sets has found its way into a container, it is probably too late.

There are those who are beginning to say that the main product of our time and our biggest legacy to posterity will be huge amounts of waste – indestructible, toxic and mounting up.