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Have you ever stopped to think what happens to the tons of technology that the first world discards daily? Do you know where the life of old mobiles and fat ass TVs ends? Surely not: the brilliance of the new automatically disengages us from what is left behind.
Most of our electronic waste ends up in two places. Two huge dumps, two little hells, each one in a corner of the world and too far away for us to sleep.
One of them is the city of Guiyu, in Guandong, China, which has been receiving electronic waste for 20 years. The place where, in one way or another, most of our gadgets come to life is also the one that receives them back at the end of their useful life. Guiyu is the largest technology dump in China, and although the manufacturing and assembly of electronic components is an industry of the highest level, recycling and decomposing it is definitely the opposite. Guiyu's apocalyptic landscape shows, as far as the eye can see, mountains of discarded electronic devices among rudimentary workshop-style street shacks, where workers, equipped only with hand tools, disassemble components using non-technological methods. The transformer coils are untangled by hand to remove the wire; the plates are put into red-hot ovens and soaked in acid to get little shavings of their precious metals.
Guiyu is the second most polluted place on the planet, and for years it has been known as Poison City: the air is saturated with toxic gases, and the ground, poisoned with high doses of lead, aluminum, chromium and other heavy metals. Not even the water is drinkable, because of the high levels of lead in the river sediment.
People working at the Guiyu e-waste landfill. (Photo: Basel Action Network (Ban.org) CC BY-ND 2.0 / Flickr)
The environmental impact makes the environment, obviously, one of the least healthy on the planet. The population of Guiyu suffers from a very high rate of diseases of all kinds: respiratory and skin ailments, ulcers, migraines ... the children of the city show, for the most part, symptoms of lead poisoning, and their intelligence level is significantly lower than that of national average.
China long ago passed a law banning the import of e-waste, but the damage had already been done. Although tons of garbage continue to enter every day, the bulk of the export has been moving towards countries with more permissive laws, such as Ghana. Most tech junk is disguised for export as donations or used material, when it is nothing more than highly toxic junk.
The panorama of Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra, is equally bleak: what was once a wetland where the inhabitants of nearby cities flocked to spend their leisure time is now an electronic graveyard awash with mountains of garbage and tangles of burning cables and plastic, in which hundreds of people, mostly young people, dig with sticks through the trash and set the waste on fire, hoping that the melted plastic and rubber will bring out a few grams of precious copper.
Almost all of the poor survivors in this landfill are immigrants from northern Ghana or the Ivory Coast, and they come to Agbogbloshie hoping to earn quick money and be able to leave, in a few weeks, in search of a better future. Some are aware of the risk they are taking, but most work with their bare hands, even walking the landfill in flip-flops.
The harsh reality is that hardly anyone achieves their goal: health problems soon begin to appear: rashes, insomnia, nervous disorders, exhaustion, cardiovascular diseases. By the time they have managed to raise some money, they have to spend it on medicines and sleeping pills, and are forced to keep doing the same job over and over again to earn back what they spent.
The vicious cycle is never closed in Agbogbloshie: most of the people who work there will die of cancer before they turn 30 and without having received any kind of education.
Despite the increasingly visible impact of poor electronic waste recycling, it does not seem that the trend will change in the near future; According to a United Nations University report, almost 42 million tons of technological waste were produced during 2014 alone, and less than one sixth of it was recycled or reused correctly. Today, it is already around 50 million.
By Marah Villaverde. Blogger, photographer, translator, restless by nature and passionate about technology and gadgets. He writes on geekpunto.com, and in his offline life he enjoys cats, rain, the sea, movies and letters. Blog: http://geekpunto.com
Argentina Environmental Digital Magazine