Our e-waste poisons children in Africa

The truth about the afterlife of our old gadgets.

Have you ever wondered what becomes of the old computers we throw away and forget all about the minute we turn on the new one? Or that mobile phone you had last year but replaced with a new shiny iPhone?

In his book “Permanent Error” the South African photographer Pieter Hugo shows how African orphans live by the techno-waste from the West and how discarded computers are slowly poisoning Africa’s kids (photos: Pieter Hugo)

Acrid, black smoke drifts over the huts of the slum. The river, too, is black and thick like used oil, as it carries empty computer cases toward the ocean. Fires are blazing on the bank along the way, fueled by foam and scraps of plastic. The flames consume the plastic material from cables, plugs and motherboards, leaving only metal behind.

People in the West throw away millions of old computers every year. Hundreds of thousands of them end up in Africa, in countries like Ghana, where children try to eke out a living by selling the scrap. But the toxic elements in the waste are slowly poisoning them.

Some 400 containers of waste end up every month in the ports of  Ghana, coming from a world in which the life span of gadgets is rapidly declining and people lust after the iPad 2 or the latest smart phone, and who remove all their clunky screens from their offices and living rooms, on the quest for the most HD-inch flat screen.

The stickers on the garbage container show where the computer scrap comes from: the British Ministry of Defense, schools in Philadelphia, the U.S. Army, as revealed by a Dutch environment protection agency.

It costs about €3.50 ($5.30) to properly dispose of an old CRT monitor in Germany. But it costs only €1.50 to stick it on a container ship to Ghana.

On the hunt for valuable copper, steel and aluminum, which people at the edge of Accra take out  from the burnt rubbish, they get poisoned by lead, phosphorus, cadmium, bromine and mercury, at their most toxic form. But the list of the abbreviations of e-waste in Pieter Hugo’s book is three pages long. People in the West live by the digital, but here life is an analog drudgery, reminiscent of European industrialization.

According to UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme, we now produce 500 million tons of e-waste per year.

In the U.S., 80 percent of old computers are exported; In Europe around a quarter of all electronics get recycled, but what happens to the rest?

All the computers stink, whether they’re 10 or 20 years old and whether they’re made by Dell, Apple, IBM or Siemens. When they burn, it makes your head and throat hurt. The gray, gummy ashes settle into every pore and wrinkle, and they itch. Spots appear on the skin, but the kids know they can’t scratch them because the dust would sting in the open wounds.

“We need to understand that ‘away’ is a place,” we can read in the book. A place where people are born and live and breathe. Not some place where our waste magically disappears without a trace. Pieter Hugo shows us what this place looks like. Don’t look away.

Additional pictures and information:
Spiegel 2011 (german)
Spiegel 2009 (english)
www.pieterhugo.com

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