On February 21st, we were delighted to sit down with Dan Haves, one of the UBC graduate students who made the 2009 documentary Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, later broadcasted on PBS. The Emmy-winning documentary explores e-waste in three different countries: Ghana, India and China. The students travelled to these countries, where they spoke with the workers, obtained shocking footage, and uncovered some disheartening problems. To watch the documentary, click here.
In our interview, Dan discussed many issues that both enlightened us about our project, and put the problems of e-waste in a new light. Here are some things we learned:
1. China, Ghana and India are all involved in the e-waste trade, but do so in different ways.
In China, for example, women are the main workers. They sit individually at burners, “cooking circuit boards” and breathing in the toxins. In Ghana, on the other hand, children are the primary victims. They often burn Styrofoam in massive bonfires. Compared to the other countries, the barriers in Ghana are much less obtrusive, meaning that e-waste is more visible to anyone visiting.
2. There are many parties who bear responsibility for the problems.
Us, in the developed world are not without blame. The amount of electronics consumed and discarded cause the bulk of the problem. The governments of these developed countries are also responsible for the problem, by allowing the e-waste to be sent overseas illegally. Dan also includes the Port of Vancouver, arguing that they know where the shipments are heading. Finally, the governments of the developing countries should protect their citizens, and ban the import of e-waste.
3. Simply stopping the export of e-waste to developing countries won’t solve the problem.
Dan explained to us that in some of the cities they visited while making the film, e-waste trade is their only economy and source of income. This is not an excuse or a justification for sending e-waste overseas. It is simply a reminder of how complex and multifaceted the problem is. We must look for better alternatives for the people in these countries to support themselves.
4. A major issue involving e-waste is privacy.
Dan and his fellow students learned that although a hard drive can appear to be erased, it still stores information that can be revealed when taking it apart. Top-secret documents, banking information and personal photos can all be easily uncovered. In fact, Ghana is a major site of cyber-crime. The only way to truly wipe the information from a hard drive is to physically destroy it, which ruins its capability to be recycled.
When we asked Dan what we can do here to help the situation, he explained that consumers need to research recycling organizations when donating their electronics. They should be able to tell you exactly where everything goes, and what is done with every piece. His number one piece of advice is to ask questions!
Dan also commented on e-waste policies of universities. He said that the policies should be clear and transparent to everyone. Universities should do extensive research before choosing a recycling organization, and ensure that privacy issues are well taken care of, as university computers hold extensive personal information from students.