By: Melissa Colleary, Senior Sustainability Coordinator, LIU Post
We all use electronics. We text, use laptops, social media, play games, and work on our electronic devices. Even kids have them now, and they oftentimes know how to use them better than adults. In a country where we are so dependent on these devices, a lot of attention has been paid to developing new technology to replace what quickly becomes obsolete. A new iPhone will come out and people will flock to stores to get their hands on one the day it comes out, sometimes even resorting to violence while waiting in line.
With so much attention being paid to “keeping up with the Joneses,” it’s easy to forget that our old devices have to go somewhere when we’re done with them. The documentary Terra Blight addresses just that: where our devices go when we are no longer using them. The film transitions between the United States, a country known for its consumer culture, and Ghana, a third world country in Africa. The scenes in the United States show how Americans feel about electronics, particularly highlighting the gaming industry by showing people who participate in LAN parties and who spend thousands of dollars updating their technology. When asked about where the old devices go, none of the people interviewed seemed to know or even care for that matter.
The film then transitioned to Ghana, where a lot of the e-waste from the United States goes to die. The country is extremely impoverished and underdeveloped, and land that used to be grasslands and marshes have been turned into dumping grounds for electronics. These dumping grounds are a source of both profit and pain for the people of Ghana. Young children are shown picking through broken computers in search of metals to sell for money to go to school, and shop keepers sell obsolete computer hardware to people who aren’t even sure what a computer does. The health impacts are made extremely apparent throughout these scenes. There are several references to the horrendous smell, and children are shown with cuts on their hands and feet.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the film was the fact that some of the e-waste that is dumped in Ghana is from the United States government and even from the United States EPA. In a country that claims to be the best in the world, it seems hypocritical to claim a type of responsibility that clearly is not there. It seems as though the US government has taken a policy of “out of sight, out of mind” with no mind for the consequences. The US has labor laws protecting its children, meanwhile, they are shipping their e-waste off to a country where children are so poor that they are forced to pick through harmful materials in hopes of earning enough money to get an education.
A conference hosted by the EPA was also depicted in the film; however, the journalist was not allowed to enter the meeting as he was with a “private” film crew. The woman at the door to the event was not only dismissive, but she was confrontational in telling him how much she would enjoy getting security to make him leave. At this scene in the film, it made me wonder what exactly they were hiding. Later, on a trip to the dump site, people from the conference were taking pictures of the rubbish and of the children. To me, it was disgusting to watch people taking pictures with children holding garbage, almost as though it was a tourist attraction rather than an environmental crisis.
Terra Blight is such an important film because it provides so much information about a very real problem in the world. While people are concerned about the speed of their internet or the size of their iPhone, children are picking through the remains of what we no longer use in Africa. The good news, however, is that there is a lot that we can do to stop this from continuing. Probably the easiest way is to just recycle your electronics when you’re done with them, and make sure you recycle them through a reputable organization that does not dump them in third world countries. The Department of Facilities Services at LIU Post, for example, offers such a program to the campus community by utilizing Regional Computer Recycling & Recovery, a certified vendor that adheres to responsible disposal methods.
If you’re not a part of the campus community, you may check with your town government to see what kinds of programs they offer. Many, for example, offer a program called Stop Throwing Out Pollutants, whereby residents can drop off certain types of items including old electronics. Another really awesome option is to donate your old e-waste to a nonprofit organization. Rainforest Connection, for example, uses recycled cell phones to detect the sound of illegal loggers in the rainforest. With so many options, please keep the end in mind; responsibly recycle your old electronic devices.
Check out the trailer to Terra Blight: