Laying cities and lives to e-waste

Guiyu e-waste
Image by Bert van Dijk via Flickr

True, the economy is perhaps the greatest challenge facing our country. But there’s one aspect of our economy that is seldom addressed. Trash.

We are constantly encouraged to buy stuff. Buying stuff is supposed to make us happy, make us appear successful, justify our jobs. Ever hour on TV and in nearly every magazine we are deluged with advertising, exorting us to spend, spend, spend. Yet you can’t simply keep buying stuff without eventually having to throw some stuff away, even if it’s only the packaging your stuff came in.

I want to focus on electronic stuff. In many cases your new stuff is an upgrade to stuff you already have; a newer TV, a faster computer, a bigger monitor. You’ve finally given in to all the hype and bought yourself an iPhone. Now what do you do with your ancient cell phone (you know it’s ancient-all it can do is make phone calls)? No one on Craigslist wants it. You couldn’t get a single bid for it on eBay. Ah, what the heck, just toss it in the trash. The same scenario often plays out with monitors. You just got a sleek new 22″ widescreen LCD monitor, and now you have to find a new home for that 20th century monster CRT you’ve been using since AOL was a startup. All your friends are much cooler than you, they’ve been using LCDs for ages. None of them has any use for a 75 pound piece of dead technology. Once again Craigslist and eBay disappoint. Well, you know anything left out in the alley overnight disappears, so just park your old friend in the alley, or if your neighborhood is upscale, down the alley behind your neighbor’s house, and with any luck it will be gone before you leave for work the next morning.

OK, I’m using a touch of humor to make my point, but e-waste is deadly serious. Electronic trash is a world-wide concern. It is a problem that some nations attempt to solve by burdening other nations with their dangerous discards.

On the outskirts of Ghana’s biggest city sits a smoldering wasteland, a slum carved into the banks of the Korle Lagoon, one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth. The locals call it Sodom and Gomorrah.

Agbogbloshie has become one of the world’s digital dumping grounds, where the West’s electronic waste, or e-waste, piles up — hundreds of millions of tons of it each year.

When containers of old computers first began arriving in West Africa a few years ago, Ghanaians welcomed what they thought were donations to help bridge the digital divide. But soon exporters learned to exploit the loopholes by labeling junk computers “donations”…

“Some are from Germany and the U.K., and also from America,” he says, when asked where the equipment has come from. He sorts through them looking for working electronics that can be sold. He says that maybe 50 percent of the shipment is junk and the rest he will be able to salvage in some way.

E-waste generators are seldom malicious. We don’t carelessly abandon our discarded electronics with the intent to destroy another country or harm its kids. We just don’t think about it. We ignore the implications of our actions. We aren’t aware of what happens to our electronic trash nor do we want to know. We prefer ignorance. It’s such a massive problem and we feel so helpless to make any significant impact on it. Beside, our contribution to the problem is so small it hardly counts. I mean, it was only a hard drive we tossed in the trash.

As part of the investigation, one of the students buys a number of hard drives to see what is on them, secretly filming the transaction to avoid the seller’s suspicions.

The drives are purchased for the equivalent of US$35.

The students take the hard drives to Regent University in the Ghanaian capital and ask computer scientist Enoch Kwesi Messiah to help read what is on them.

Within minutes, he is scrolling through intimate details of people’s lives, files left behind by the hard drives’ original owners.

There is private financial data, too: credit card numbers, account information, records of online transactions the original owners may not have realized were even there.

“ I can get your bank numbers and I retrieve all your money from your accounts,” Messiah says. “If ever somebody gets your hard drive, he can get every information about you from the drive, no matter where it is hidden.”

That’s particularly a problem in a place like Ghana, which is listed by the U.S. State Department as one of the top sources of cyber crime in the world. And it’s not just individuals who are exposed. One of the drives the team has purchased contains a $22 million government contract.

It turns out the drive came from Northrop Grumman, one of America’s largest military contractors. And it contains details about sensitive, multi-million dollar U.S. government contracts. They also find contracts with the defense intelligence agency, NASA, even Homeland Security.

(Quotes courtesy of PBS’s Frontline)

If this issue does concern you or you’d like to know why it should, follow the above link to read the full story and view the episode of Frontline. Then do the planet a favor and learn more about responsible e-waste disposal in your area.

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