A documentary film exploring the complex underbelly of electronics recycling made its U.S. premiere last night during E-Scrap 2014.
“The E-Waste Tragedy,” written and directed by filmmaker Cosima Dannoritzer, in many ways mirrors the angle of a well-known “60 Minutes” segment on illegal dumping of electronics that aired on CBS in 2008. Both depictions of the e-scrap sphere highlight instances of used devices flowing from the hands of unsuspecting consumers in developed nations to the feet of impoverished citizens of Ghana, China and other nations where material is ultimately dismantled in crude conditions.
However, while the “60 Minutes” look focused mainly on U.S.-generated material (and helped spark a public outcry over the electronics processing stream), Dannoritzer’s film aims to cover the topic at a deeper, global level.
“The E-Waste Tragedy” tags along on the efforts made by a number of individuals trying to uncover the perpetrators and factors pushing forward the illegal electronic scrap trade. Viewers learn about the reporting of a journalist from Ghana who finds material from the U.K. in one of the infamous dumps near Accra, Ghana and heads to the British offices where the computer parts were once used to try to find how they made their way to Africa.
Also given screen time (and sympathy): a group of Spanish activists who tag different types of WEEE and follow it through the nation’s recycling system; a Chinese Greenpeace representative trying to untangle the movement of material through Hong Kong; and Jim Puckett, founder of the Basel Action Network, who voices a particularly strong criticism of the U.S. government’s strategy to dispose of its own electronic material.
Through those perspectives and others, the film investigates the unscrupulous hands material from the U.S. and Europe can go through even after its been collected via government-sanctioned systems. It becomes clear to the viewer that part of the problem stems from a lack of funding for inspection and enforcement (in Hong Kong, Dannoritzer states, 36,000 e-scrap containers are imported annually while only 40 are deemed illegal and sent back).
Dannoritzer also directed the 2010 documentary “The Light Bulb Conspiracy,” a critical history of planned obsolescence in the consumer electronics industry. And to industry professionals steeped in the nuances of the realities of global e-scrap, her latest effort may feel slightly loaded. For example, the issue of demand for used electronics in developing nations (and the refurb market’s efforts to supply it) is touched on only briefly near the end of the movie.
The film also conveys a notion that most, if not all, end-of-life-electronics management in developing countries comes in the smoky, sludge-filled pits we’ve come to associate with the names Guyiu and Agbogbloshie. But a deepening pool of reporting over the past several years has begun to illustrate a more nuanced processing situation. Bloomberg’s Adam Minter and others have described modern facilities with well-trained workers that are helping nations like China and India get a grip on their electronics recycling while also driving local economies forward.
Still, “The E-Waste Tragedy” makes it clear the crude dumping grounds continue to exist and some of the material in them comes from countries that say they have infrastructures in place to avoid improper disposal.
The movie ultimately traces the problem back to consumer culture itself. Roughly 50 million flat panel TVs were sold a year ago, Dannoritzer notes, and the mobile market continues to evolve and expand. Recycling efforts surely continue to develop in the U.S. and other wealthy nations, but according to the argument put forth in the movie, more steps also need to be taken to control the illegal trade that for decades has existed beside legitimate global shipments of electronic material.
The screening at the E-Scrap Conference was followed by a Q-and-A with Puckett, Kyle Wiens of online repair community iFixIt and Total Reclaim co-owner Craig Lorch. All three were featured in the film.
Many questions were raised by the audience following the screening, with a pair of comments coming from individuals with ties to developing nations. Eric Prempeh, a Ghanan national studying at Georgia Tech, called on the media to offer a more nuanced look at the repair and reuse communities in his home country. “In this film, I saw everything depicted as junk in Agbogbloshie, but I know that much of what comes into the country works when it gets there.”
Two electronics recyclers from Egypt, Ehab and Omar Mostafa, called for increased investment and support for recyclers in the developing world, something that all on the panel – Lorch, Puckett and Wiens – agreed was necessary.
The 86-minute film, at press time, does not have wide U.S. distribution yet, but it is scheduled to appear Oct. 26 at the UNAFF International Film Festival in Palo Alto, California. It was initially released in Germany in May.