‘I spot model new TVs, right here to be shredded’: the reality about our digital waste | Waste



In the foyer of Fresno airport is a forest of plastic timber. A bit on the nostril, I feel: that is central California, dwelling of the grand Sequoia nationwide park. However you possibly can’t put a 3,000-year-old redwood in a planter (to not point out the ceiling clearance subject), so the vacationer board has deemed it match to construct these towering, convincing copies. I pull out my telephone and take an image, amused and considerably appalled. What is going to reside longer, I ponder: the actual timber or the fakes?

I haven’t come to Fresno to see the timber; I’ve come in regards to the machine on which I took the image. In a warehouse within the south of town, inexperienced vehicles are unloading pallets of previous electronics by the doorways of Electronics Recyclers Worldwide (ERI), the most important electronics recycling firm within the US.

Waste electrical and digital gear (higher identified by its unlucky acronym, Weee) is the fastest-growing waste stream on this planet. Digital waste amounted to 53.6m tonnes in 2019, a determine rising at about 2% a yr. Think about: in 2021, tech firms offered an estimated 1.43bn smartphones, 341m computer systems, 210m TVs and 548m pairs of headphones. And that’s ignoring the thousands and thousands of consoles, intercourse toys, electrical scooters and different battery-powered gadgets we purchase yearly. Most should not disposed of however reside on in perpetuity, tucked away, forgotten, just like the previous iPhones and headphones in my kitchen drawer, saved “simply in case”. As the pinnacle of MusicMagpie, a UK secondhand retail and refurbishing service, tells me: “Our greatest competitor is apathy.”

Globally, solely 17.4% of digital waste is recycled. Between 7% and 20% is exported, 8% thrown into landfills and incinerators within the international north, and the remainder is unaccounted for. But Weee is, by weight, among the many most treasured waste there’s. One piece of digital gear can include 60 parts, from copper and aluminium to rarer metals comparable to cobalt and tantalum, utilized in all the things from motherboards to gyroscopic sensors. A typical iPhone, for instance, comprises 0.018g of gold, 0.34g of silver, 0.015g of palladium and a tiny fraction of platinum. Multiply by the sheer amount of gadgets and the influence is huge: a single recycler in China, GEM, produces extra cobalt than the nation’s mines annually. The supplies in our e-waste – together with as much as 7% of the world’s gold reserves – are value £50.9bn a yr.

Aaron Blum, co-founder and chief working officer of ERI, arrives sporting the company uniform of a tech govt: navy hoodie and denims. “You’ll want these,” he says, handing me a pair of vibrant orange earplugs. Blum and a buddy began ERI again in 2002, after leaving school. California had simply banned electronics from landfills because of hazardous chemical contents – however little recycling infrastructure existed. “I didn’t know something about electronics. I used to be a enterprise main,” Blum says. As we speak, ERI has eight services throughout the US and processes 57,000 tonnes of scrap electronics a yr.

Aaron Blum, co-founder and chief operating officer at the Electronics Recyclers International facility in Fresno, California, wearing hi-vis jacket and hard hat
‘I didn’t know something about electronics. I used to be a enterprise main,’ says ERI co-founder Aaron Blum. {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

To get to the manufacturing facility flooring, we go by a scanner. Safety is tight for a purpose: thousands and thousands of {dollars}’ value of still-functioning or repairable electronics passing by make it a tempting goal for thieves. Within the loading bay, a goateed man named Julio is unloading pallets of shrink-wrapped displays from a Salvation Military truck – charity outlets are a significant supply of ERI’s product. Every thing that arrives is scanned earlier than being dismantled and sorted. “You’ll be able to’t shred sure supplies, so that you’ve obtained to do a form,” Blum says.

Electronics are piled in every single place: flatscreens, DVD gamers, desktops, printers, keyboards. At a set of tables, 9 males are taking aside massive TVs, their electrical screwdrivers emitting a low whiz. One other is smashing a monitor from its casing with a hammer (“Because of the adhesive”). The dismantling crews, Blum says, will deal with as much as 2,948kg (6,500lb) of gadgets a day.

We go a noticeboard marked Focus Materials, on which precise components have been pinned as visible aids: motherboards, wire scraps, monitor casings. “This hits dwelling greater than studying a doc,” Blum says.

Scrap recycling comprises so many various supplies that the trade has developed its personal shorthand: gentle copper is “Dream”, No 1 copper wire is “Barley”, insulated aluminium wire is “Twang”. There’s no such poetry right here, nonetheless. As an alternative, the extracted items are thrown into packing containers scrawled with issues like Copper and CAT-5 wiring. Inside one I discover a coil of LED Christmas lights. “Throughout the holidays we get a ton of those. That is all copper, within the wire,” Blum says, grabbing a handful. “We’ve got to undergo and manually lower the bulbs off.”

Some supplies – paper, batteries – should be eliminated for security causes. “If one thing will get by that may’t be shredded, you possibly can have a fireplace or an explosion,” Blum says. “Once you’re shredding metallic, it will get actually sizzling.” Warmth-sensing cameras continually scan the manufacturing facility flooring for decent pockets, and the employees put on masks and gloves: e-waste comprises toxicants starting from lead and mercury to polybrominated flame-retardants and PFAS.

The centrepiece of the ability is the shredder, a hulking beast that stretches the size of the constructing, three storeys excessive, making a prodigious racket. (Therefore the earplugs.) As soon as the waste has been sorted, a employee in a Bobcat telehandler carries it over to the conveyor’s gaping maw, the place ultra-hardened spinning blades lower by aluminium and plastic like ice in a blender. “Once you’re shredding electronics, you’re creating mud that comprises lead from the circuit boards, so we’ve assortment hoods sucking up all of the mud,” Blum hollers. The mud must be disposed of as hazardous waste. I nod, exhilarated by the sheer violence of it.

Magnetic belts, air-sorters and filters separate the supplies as they go alongside the shredder, dropping them into large “tremendous sacks”. We cease at one and look down at a treasure haul of silver-grey flecks. “We name this treasured metallic fines,” Blum says. “It’s gold, silver and palladium from the circuit boards.” A single sack’s contents are most likely value sufficient to purchase a good automobile.

Piles of shredded copper at the Electronic Recyclers International facility in Fresno, California
Piles of shredded copper on the facility …
Sacks of precious metals, aluminium, steel, plastic and copper at the Electronics Recyclers International facility in Fresno, California
… and sacks of treasured metals, aluminium, metal, plastic and copper. Images: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

Farther alongside the road, the conveyor splits off into tributaries. A robotic arm whirrs above one, choosing up components. “We used to have 15 pickers on this line. Now we’ve two or three,” Blum says. The corporate spent some huge cash coaching the robotic, which picks far quicker than any human may and is now 97% correct. Blum appears to desire it to individuals. “It involves work on daily basis and by no means obtained Covid,” he says. I can’t inform if he’s joking.

Close to the top of the road, extra metals roll into their tremendous sacks. ERI’s greatest materials streams, by weight, are metal, plastic, aluminium and brass. The circuit boards are despatched to LS Nikko, a metals manufacturing large based mostly in South Korea; the aluminium goes to the US smelting large Alcoa. “The metal would possibly go to your massive metal patrons within the US – they may ship it to mills in Turkey, however in any other case, all the things stays home.”

ERI fees prospects a charge for disposal, dismantling, knowledge elimination and recycling. Most are motivated not by decreasing waste, Blum says, however by cybersecurity: “Ninety-nine per cent of the electronics you might have at this time have your knowledge on them. So knowledge has grow to be very, essential.” Paranoid about shedding industrial secrets and techniques to China, firms would quite have their previous machines wiped and shredded. “We’ve got Homeland Safety come to our services. They may escort the fabric to the shredder, stand watching whereas we run the fabric by, and typically even take the shred out.”

As we go again by the manufacturing facility, one thing catches my eye: a pallet of TV screens from a significant producer, nonetheless neatly boxed and plastic-wrapped. They’re model new, however right here to be shredded: “They don’t need this product resold and competing in opposition to their new merchandise, so they need all of it destroyed.”

I’d anticipated to see this at ERI, however not so openly. Producers and retailers routinely destroy returns and unsold objects, often called deadstock, en masse. As Kyle Wiens, founding father of the restore chain iFixit, tells me, these “must-shred” contracts are the “soiled secret” of the recycling trade. (“The recyclers are determined for producer contracts, so that they’ll do something and maintain their mouths shut,” Wiens says.) In 2021, as an illustration, an ITV Information investigation within the UK discovered Amazon was sending thousands and thousands of latest and returned objects a yr to be destroyed. (Amazon says it has since stopped the observe.)

In 2020, Apple sued a Canadian recycler for reselling a number of the 500,000 gadgets it had despatched for shredding. The recycler, GEEP, blamed rogue staff – however the implication that the gadgets had been working properly sufficient to promote set off a wider scandal. The unlucky fact is that firms destroy new and practically new merchandise on a regular basis. Luxurious and know-how manufacturers are reluctant to low cost or donate unsold objects which may undermine gross sales of latest fashions. Burberry, for one, admitted to incinerating £105m of unsold objects within the 5 years to 2018, to cease them being offered at discounted charges (Burberry additionally says it has ended the observe). In different instances, the monetary upside of processing unsold objects or returns will not be definitely worth the prices, so it’s cheaper to put in writing it off. Burn it or bury it, losing is reasonable.

Employees at the Electronics Recyclers International facility in Fresno, California, finish their shift
ERI staff end their shift. {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

There’s an previous axiom that they don’t make issues like they used to. Items cheaply purchased are cheaply made – no shock there. However relating to e-waste, a extra critical allegation is “deliberate obsolescence”, by which industries design merchandise with artificially quick lives, so that they should be changed extra rapidly.

Some obsolescence is nice: changing vehicles for fashions with extra fuel-efficient engines, for instance. Equally, we all know the speedy churn of good gadgets within the final decade has been pushed not by defective merchandise, however by the relentless tempo of technological progress.

Even so, the electronics trade has confronted allegations that deliberate obsolescence is contributing to our rising tide of e-waste. In 2017, for instance, Apple admitted it had been utilizing software program to gradual older iPhones. After a number of lawsuits, together with a $500m civil motion it settled in 2020, the corporate finally apologised. Nevertheless it has additionally engaged in a sample of behaviour critics allege undermines its self-image as a sustainable enterprise: the iPhone 13, launched in 2021, initially included a function that might disable the Face ID unlock system if the display was changed with one not made by Apple.

Most of us would do not know methods to repair our telephone and even when we did, many producers have eliminated the flexibility for shoppers even to interchange batteries, arguing that repairs should be accomplished by professionals and even by the corporate itself – for a hefty charge, after all. iPhone house owners within the US who wish to restore their telephone, for instance, should pay a $1,200 deposit to rent Apple’s particular instruments. I discover this disheartening, as a result of as a youngster within the mid-2000s I spent my weekends working at a cell phone restore stall within the native procuring centre, fortunately swapping out dud batteries and damaged screens from previous Nokias and Motorolas for brand spanking new ones.

Employees sort through waste at the Electronics Recyclers International facility in Fresno, California
The Fresno facility is one among eight ERI has throughout the US, processing 57,000 tonnes of scrap electronics a yr. {Photograph}: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

Nevertheless it isn’t simply amateurs who discover fashionable electronics laborious to restore. As our gadgets have grow to be thinner and cheaper, they’ve grow to be trickier to repair: once-removable components printed on to circuit boards; screens held in place by adhesives; tiny earbuds that may’t be opened; software program locks that render older gadgets unusable. This battle over restore has come to a head, due to organisations comparable to iFixit (which, along with its restore outlets, publishes How To guides on-line at no cost), the Restart Project and Europe’s “right to repair” guidelines. In France, new electronics must now be labelled with a “repairability index” rating, which charges merchandise on classes comparable to spare components and ease of entry.

Whereas most of us are most likely not going to aim to repair our telephones, even with a $1,200 restore package, the difficulty of restore has real-world penalties farther afield – typically in locations the place technical help is far more durable to search out.

Rich nations have been exporting e-waste to poorer nations for nearly so long as there was any to ship. However the commerce didn’t earn a lot consideration till 2002, when the Basel Motion Community launched Exporting Harm, a now-infamous documentary in regards to the environmental disaster e-waste was inflicting on recycling cities in southern China, notably Guiyu. The movie confirmed desperately poor staff, together with youngsters, breaking down electronics by hand, burning the casings off wires and separating parts with acid baths, to entry the precious scrap metals inside.

The ecological and human toll was heartbreaking. Soil and water samples within the recycling zones contained lead and different heavy metals that exceeded each World Well being Group threshold; in a single research, 81.8% of youngsters underneath six surveyed have been affected by lead poisoning. The Chinese language authorities has since cleared most of the casual recycling outlets in Guiyu and concentrated e-waste inside allotted industrial zones. However whereas China’s imports have fallen, the quantity we produce has solely grown. For the previous few years, probably the most infamous vacation spot for western electronics has been not China however a slum in Accra, Ghana. Dubbed “the world’s largest e-waste dump”, Agbogbloshie has been the topic of harrowing press protection, in addition to many viral YouTube movies (most shot by white westerners).

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An employee at the Electronics Recyclers International facility in Fresno, California plastic-wraps microwaves
An employee plastic-wraps old microwaves. Photograph: Philip Cheung/The Guardian

I remember being horrified by the images: barefoot “burner boys” torching scrap wire as toxic fumes billowed from scorched earth; others cracking open imported phones against the backdrop of a dilapidated slum. Once again, it seemed, western waste electronics were being dumped on the world’s poor, who were reaping the toxic consequences. I decided I needed to see it for myself, and it turns out the reality is not quite so simple.

It’s a glorious day in Accra when I arrive outside Evans Queye’s electronics shop. “Welcome!” Queye, who is expecting me, steps out to offer a warm handshake. A spectacled man with a bright smile and a taste for even brighter shirts, Queye is an electronics importer who buys used laptops from the Netherlands to resell in Accra’s thriving secondhand market.

“Our biggest market is schools,” he says, gesturing into an open-fronted unit with sun-baked brickwork and faded signage, on the end of a row of similar shops. Inside, I spot several dozen new-looking Dell boxes, stacked chest high. Children have recently returned to classrooms after the pandemic and orders are picking up again. “Some of these have come from schools in Holland and will go to schools in Ghana. Come,” Queye says, gesturing at the high sun and perhaps noticing the sweat pooling at my neck. “We’ll talk in my office.”

Queye’s office is a few blocks away and as we drive there in his Volvo, I notice more repair shops. Outside one, rows of old Sony TVs hide in the shade of an awning. At another, kitchen appliances – almost all imported – spill into the street. Ghana’s economy, like many in this part of Africa, is built on the secondhand trade. Every year, more than 1.2m containers pass through the nearby port of Tema, loaded with pre-owned goods from the US, Europe and Asia. Not only electronics, but clothing and cars, too. In 2009, the last year with solid data, Ghana imported 215,000 tonnes of electronics, 70% of it used. The imports are by necessity, as much as anything: the minimum wage in Ghana is just 12.53 cedis (90p) an hour, so few people can afford to buy new. That’s where repairers like Queye come in.

His office is a cool, welcoming place, the desk dotted with old laptops, a ceiling fan looping lazily overhead. Queye has worked in the secondhand trade since he left school, in 2002. These days, he is a rep for Snew BV, a “circular telecoms” company based in the Netherlands, which collects used electronics from across Europe for resale. The newer models are resold in Europe, the older ones in Africa, where prices are lower. “The standard model we receive is five years old. But we can use a machine for as much as 15 years. I have a Pentium IV … ” He pulls out a Dell laptop that must be at least a decade old (Intel stopped making the Pentium IV in 2008). “I’ve been using it a very long time and it’s working perfectly.”

Later, Queye drives me across town to Danke IT Systems, a small repair shop on the second storey of a strip mall. It’s a tiny place, internet cafe-style, with a handful of machines set up for customers. The manager, a bright-eyed, bald 39-year-old named Wisdom Amoo, sits behind his desk with a laptop on his lap and a screwdriver in his hand. The cubbyholes and drawers around him are brimful of laptops and parts: Dells, mostly, but also machines from HP, Lenovo, Asus, Apple.

Amoo has just finished with the HP in his hands, which had a broken charging port. The part is soldered down, so he has improvised by converting a display port to accept a charging cable. “I need to cut a hole here and replace it with parts from another machine,” he says, gesturing with a precise finger. Certain models tend to have the same issues – screen burn in one, faulty trackpads in another – and repair work is a delicate skill: a single slip with a soldering iron can ruin a laptop rather than fix it. When he’s soldering, Amoo holds his breath.

In Accra, Queye explains, the scrap recyclers from dumps such as Agbogbloshie are part of the repair ecosystem. “If the repair shops had a machine that could not be repaired, then the scrap boys would pick it up and take it to Agbogbloshie. Then the repair shops would go down there to see if they could source parts. If I need a part for a TV with a working screen but a broken power system, by chance, I might find the same TV with a broken screen but the power system working.” Only after usable parts had been extracted would the remainder be dismantled and sold off for scrap.

This, Queye explains, is the context often overlooked in western media stories about Agbogbloshie. E-waste is not coming to Ghana to be dumped; it’s coming to be used. In that sense Agbogbloshie was not “the world’s largest e-waste dump”.

It’s a neighbourhood, home to schools, markets, churches and to a large informal settlement, Old Fadama, which houses an estimated 100,000 people, many immigrants from the poor northern regions of Ghana. The “dump” was a scrapyard – albeit a very large and well documented one, where the environmental controls were tragically lacking.

I’m writing in the past tense because Agbogbloshie no longer exists – at least, not in the form it once did. In 2021, the Ghanaian police raided and demolished the scrapyard. A couple of days after meeting Queye, I head there to see it for myself. From Old Fadama, I can look out across the Odaw River to where it once stood. The site has been razed. Bare earth covers the area of the former scrapyard and shops, a handful of heavy earth movers still dragging topsoil around. The government supposedly plans to build a hospital there.

African men disassemble electronic scrap and bulky waste on the largest electronic scrap yard of Africa in Agbogbloshie, a district of Ghana's capital Accra, May 2019
Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana, was dubbed ‘the world’s largest e-waste dump’, then raided and demolished in 2021. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

I don’t intend to minimise the pollution caused at Agbogbloshie, which was nothing short of horrifying. The toxic toll of burning and dismantling the e-waste polluted the soil, the groundwater, the workers and even the food. In 2011, a Ghanaian researcher found soil at a nearby school exceeded European safety standards twelvefold; in another study, eggs from chickens living in the settlement contained 220 times the tolerable daily intake of dioxins. Agbogbloshie might not have been the largest e-waste dump in the world, but it was almost certainly among the most polluted.

With Agbogbloshie gone, many of the scrappers have simply crossed the river into Old Fadama, itself a sprawling place: colourful wooden dwellings separated by thin mud lanes, so close as to be almost on top of one another. Inside, some inhabitants sleep eight to a room. Few of the buildings have toilets or running water. The scrap workers have set up shop around the edge of the slum, on the river beach. There, several dozen men are dismantling waste: hammering apart old engine blocks and tearing down refrigerators. Here, a teenage boy is cutting up a gearbox while an older man prises the springs from an old car seat. With nowhere to keep their stocks, the scrappers store them in the open. One tangle of old bicycles looks like the aftermath of a collision on the Tour de France. The ground is flecked with snapped fragments of TV casings and old motherboards, which chickens and goats pick through, looking for lunch.

The burner boys have set up as far from the houses as possible, out beyond the children playing football. A dozen are gathered around a makeshift fire pit, carrying nests of wire on metal poles, which they press into the flames. The plastic melts away like marshmallow, giving off smoke. The air is singed with the wretched stench of plastics and burning solder. I want to talk to some of them, but my colleagues advise me not to. Since the government clearance, some of the scrap workers have become angry with western interlopers, whom they justifiably blame for the government’s decision to knock down their old homes. “They have given thousands of interviews,” Queye says. “They were still evicted.”

But Queye has known many of the scrap boys for years and offers to introduce me to some at his office. When I turn up next day, half a dozen young men – some of whom I’d still consider children – file in, looking down, wearing flip-flops and the tattered shirts of rich European football teams: Juventus, Chelsea, Real Madrid. Most are not from Accra. “We’re all from the north,” Yakubu Sumani, a wiry young man in tired black jeans and a brown T-shirt says.

Sumani had worked in the scrapyard since he was 15, earning 15-20 cedis (£1.10-£1.40) a day, buying and selling material. It wasn’t easy or glamorous, but it paid better than other jobs in the informal sector; many of the young men were able to earn enough to send some money back to their families.

Sumani recalls the clearing of Agbogbloshie: “The police came with weapons. They were arresting us. They beat some of us.” The scrappers scattered, some returning home, to scrap jobs in the north. “We have a lot of people who are displaced,” Queye says, quietly.

By destroying Agbogbloshie, the government has not eliminated the e-waste, but spread it. “The waste is still in the system. But where is it now? You can’t find it because it is scattered all over.” Queye and other scrap traders argue that it would be better to formalise the trade in Ghana: allocate an industrial zone, provide health and safety rules, give workers formal recognition and social support, such as pensions. “None of them have any savings,” he says. “What they make, they eat that night.” He fears the country will soon follow in the footsteps of others, including China, India, Thailand and Uganda, and ban the import of used electronics entirely. “If it happens here,” he says, “we are doomed.”

Too often, the way we talk about e-waste falls into a kind of guilt trap: aren’t we terrible, for inflicting our waste on others. But the story is rarely that simple. To see exports as “dumping” ignores the local importers and the reasons they do it. That isn’t to say we should permit dumping, but rather recognise that, for consumers in the global north, our role in this story is more difficult. (And that we aren’t always the protagonist.) A more serious attitude to e-waste might ask why extended producer responsibility schemes – in which technology companies pay into a central fund that goes towards recycling and product end-of-life programmes – aren’t sending far more money into the global south, where their devices end up. When we discuss the right to repair and obsolescence, we rarely see the last links in the chain, the people who often use those products the longest. Who is listening to their voices? Where are they at the table? As the journalist Adam Minter writes in his scrap travelogue Junkyard Planet: “When you think about it, insisting Africa’s secondhand traders adopt Europe’s definition of ‘waste’ … is a kind of colonialism.”

As I step out of Queye’s office into the bright sunlight, I’m reminded of something he’d said that first morning we met. “Every machine one way or the other will die.” Then he’d grinned that irresistible grin. “Like humans: everything has a lifespan.”

This is an edited extract from Wasteland: The Dirty Truth About What We Throw Away, Where It Goes, and Why It Matters by Oliver Franklin-Wallis, published by Simon & Schuster on 22 June at £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


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