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‘I spot brand new TVs, here to be shredded’: the truth about our electronic waste

Jan 27, 2024

In a giant factory in California, thousands of screens, PCs and other old or unwanted gadgets are picked apart for materials. But what about the billions of other defunct (or not) devices?

In the lobby of Fresno airport is a forest of plastic trees. A bit on the nose, I think: this is central California, home of the grand Sequoia national park. But you can't put a 3,000-year-old redwood in a planter (not to mention the ceiling clearance issue), so the tourist board has deemed it fit to build these towering, convincing copies. I pull out my phone and take a picture, amused and somewhat appalled. What will live longer, I wonder: the real trees or the fakes?

I haven't come to Fresno to see the trees; I’ve come about the device on which I took the picture. In a warehouse in the south of the city, green trucks are unloading pallets of old electronics through the doors of Electronics Recyclers International (ERI), the largest electronics recycling company in the US.

Waste electrical and electronic equipment (better known by its unfortunate acronym, Weee) is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. Electronic waste amounted to 53.6m tonnes in 2019, a figure growing at about 2% a year. Consider: in 2021, tech companies sold an estimated 1.43bn smartphones, 341m computers, 210m TVs and 548m pairs of headphones. And that's ignoring the millions of consoles, sex toys, electric scooters and other battery-powered devices we buy every year. Most are not disposed of but live on in perpetuity, tucked away, forgotten, like the old iPhones and headphones in my kitchen drawer, kept "just in case". As the head of MusicMagpie, a UK secondhand retail and refurbishing service, tells me: "Our biggest competitor is apathy."

Globally, only 17.4% of electronic waste is recycled. Between 7% and 20% is exported, 8% thrown into landfills and incinerators in the global north, and the rest is unaccounted for. Yet Weee is, by weight, among the most precious waste there is. One piece of electronic equipment can contain 60 elements, from copper and aluminium to rarer metals such as cobalt and tantalum, used in everything from motherboards to gyroscopic sensors. A typical iPhone, for example, contains 0.018g of gold, 0.34g of silver, 0.015g of palladium and a tiny fraction of platinum. Multiply by the sheer quantity of devices and the impact is vast: a single recycler in China, GEM, produces more cobalt than the country's mines each year. The materials in our e-waste – including up to 7% of the world's gold reserves – are worth £50.9bn a year.

Aaron Blum, co-founder and chief operating officer of ERI, arrives wearing the corporate uniform of a tech executive: navy hoodie and jeans. "You’ll need these," he says, handing me a pair of bright orange earplugs. Blum and a friend started ERI back in 2002, after leaving college. California had just banned electronics from landfills due to hazardous chemical contents – but little recycling infrastructure existed. "I didn't know anything about electronics. I was a business major," Blum says. Today, ERI has eight facilities across the US and processes 57,000 tonnes of scrap electronics a year.

To get to the factory floor, we pass through a scanner. Security is tight for a reason: millions of dollars’ worth of still-functioning or repairable electronics passing through make it a tempting target for thieves. In the loading bay, a goateed guy named Julio is unloading pallets of shrink-wrapped monitors from a Salvation Army truck – charity shops are a major source of ERI's product. Everything that arrives is scanned before being dismantled and sorted. "You can't shred certain materials, so you’ve got to do a sort," Blum says.

Electronics are piled everywhere: flatscreens, DVD players, desktops, printers, keyboards. At a set of tables, nine men are taking apart large TVs, their electric screwdrivers emitting a low whiz. Another is smashing a monitor from its casing with a hammer ("Due to the adhesive"). The dismantling crews, Blum says, will handle up to 2,948kg (6,500lb) of devices a day.

We pass a noticeboard marked Focus Material, on which actual parts have been pinned as visual aids: motherboards, wire scraps, monitor casings. "This hits home more than reading a document," Blum says.

Scrap recycling contains so many different materials that the industry has developed its own shorthand: light copper is "Dream", No 1 copper wire is "Barley", insulated aluminium wire is "Twang". There's no such poetry here, however. Instead, the extracted pieces are thrown into boxes scrawled with things like Copper and CAT-5 wiring. Inside one I notice a coil of LED Christmas lights. "During the holidays we get a ton of these. This is all copper, in the wire," Blum says, grabbing a handful. "We have to go through and manually cut the bulbs off."

Some materials – paper, batteries – must be removed for safety reasons. "If something gets through that can't be shredded, you can have a fire or an explosion," Blum says. "When you’re shredding metal, it gets really hot." Heat-sensing cameras constantly scan the factory floor for hot pockets, and the workers wear masks and gloves: e-waste contains toxicants ranging from lead and mercury to polybrominated flame-retardants and PFAS.

The centrepiece of the facility is the shredder, a hulking beast that stretches the length of the building, three storeys high, making a prodigious racket. (Hence the earplugs.) Once the waste has been sorted, a worker in a Bobcat telehandler carries it over to the conveyor's gaping maw, where ultra-hardened spinning blades cut through aluminium and plastic like ice in a blender. "When you’re shredding electronics, you’re creating dust that contains lead from the circuit boards, so we have collection hoods sucking up all the dust," Blum hollers. The dust has to be disposed of as hazardous waste. I nod, exhilarated by the sheer violence of it.

Magnetic belts, air-sorters and filters separate the materials as they pass along the shredder, dropping them into giant "super sacks". We stop at one and look down at a treasure haul of silver-grey flecks. "We call this precious metal fines," Blum says. "It's gold, silver and palladium from the circuit boards." A single sack's contents are probably worth enough to buy a decent car.

Farther along the line, the conveyor splits off into tributaries. A robot arm whirrs above one, picking up parts. "We used to have 15 pickers on this line. Now we have two or three," Blum says. The company spent a lot of money training the robot, which picks far faster than any human could and is now 97% accurate. Blum seems to prefer it to people. "It comes to work every day and never got Covid," he says. I can't tell if he's joking.

Near the end of the line, more metals roll into their super sacks. ERI's biggest material streams, by weight, are steel, plastic, aluminium and brass. The circuit boards are sent to LS Nikko, a metals manufacturing giant based in South Korea; the aluminium goes to the US smelting giant Alcoa. "The steel might go to your large steel buyers in the US – they might send it to mills in Turkey, but otherwise, everything stays domestic."

ERI charges customers a fee for disposal, dismantling, data removal and recycling. Most are motivated not by reducing waste, Blum says, but by cybersecurity: "Ninety-nine per cent of the electronics you have today have your data on them. So data has become very, very important." Paranoid about losing industrial secrets to China, companies would rather have their old machines wiped and shredded. "We have Homeland Security come to our facilities. They will escort the material to the shredder, stand watching while we run the material through, and sometimes even take the shred out."

As we pass back through the factory, something catches my eye: a pallet of TV screens from a major manufacturer, still neatly boxed and plastic-wrapped. They are brand new, but here to be shredded: "They don't want this product resold and competing against their new products, so they want it all destroyed."

I’d expected to see this at ERI, but not so brazenly. Manufacturers and retailers routinely destroy returns and unsold items, known as deadstock, en masse. As Kyle Wiens, founder of the repair chain iFixit, tells me, these "must-shred" contracts are the "dirty secret" of the recycling industry. ("The recyclers are desperate for manufacturer contracts, so they’ll do anything and keep their mouths shut," Wiens says.) In 2021, for instance, an ITV News investigation in the UK found Amazon was sending millions of new and returned items a year to be destroyed. (Amazon says it has since stopped the practice.)

In 2020, Apple sued a Canadian recycler for reselling some of the 500,000 devices it had sent for shredding. The recycler, GEEP, blamed rogue employees – but the implication that the devices had been working well enough to sell set off a wider scandal. The unfortunate truth is that companies destroy new and nearly new products all the time. Luxury and technology brands are reluctant to discount or donate unsold items that might undermine sales of new models. Burberry, for one, admitted to incinerating £105m of unsold items in the five years to 2018, to stop them being sold at discounted rates (Burberry also says it has ended the practice). In other cases, the financial upside of processing unsold items or returns is not worth the costs, so it's cheaper to write it off. Burn it or bury it, wasting is cheap.

There's an old axiom that they don't make things like they used to. Goods cheaply bought are cheaply made – no surprise there. But when it comes to e-waste, a more serious allegation is "planned obsolescence", by which industries design products with artificially short lives, so they need to be replaced more quickly.

Some obsolescence is good: replacing cars for models with more fuel-efficient engines, for example. Similarly, we know the rapid churn of smart devices in the last decade has been driven not by faulty products, but by the relentless pace of technological progress.

Even so, the electronics industry has faced allegations that planned obsolescence is contributing to our rising tide of e-waste. In 2017, for example, Apple admitted it had been using software to slow older iPhones. After multiple lawsuits, including a $500m civil action it settled in 2020, the company eventually apologised. But it has also engaged in a pattern of behaviour critics allege undermines its self-image as a sustainable business: the iPhone 13, introduced in 2021, initially included a feature that would disable the Face ID unlock system if the screen was replaced with one not made by Apple.

Most of us would have no idea how to fix our phone and even if we did, many manufacturers have removed the ability for consumers even to replace batteries, arguing that repairs must be done by professionals or even by the company itself – for a hefty fee, of course. iPhone owners in the US who want to repair their phone, for example, must pay a $1,200 deposit to hire Apple's special tools. I find this disheartening, because as a teenager in the mid-2000s I spent my weekends working at a mobile phone repair stall in the local shopping centre, happily swapping out dud batteries and broken screens from old Nokias and Motorolas for new ones.

But it isn't just amateurs who find modern electronics hard to repair. As our devices have become thinner and cheaper, they have become trickier to fix: once-removable parts printed on to circuit boards; screens held in place by adhesives; tiny earbuds that can't be opened; software locks that render older devices unusable. This fight over repair has come to a head, thanks to organisations such as iFixit (which, in addition to its repair shops, publishes How To guides online for free), the Restart Project and Europe's "right to repair" rules. In France, new electronics must now be labelled with a "repairability index" score, which rates products on categories such as spare parts and ease of access.

While most of us are probably not going to attempt to fix our phones, even with a $1,200 repair kit, the issue of repair has real-world consequences farther afield – often in places where technical support is much harder to find.

Rich countries have been exporting e-waste to poorer countries for almost as long as there has been any to send. But the trade didn't earn much attention until 2002, when the Basel Action Network released Exporting Harm, a now-infamous documentary about the environmental crisis e-waste was inflicting on recycling towns in southern China, particularly Guiyu. The film showed desperately poor workers, including children, breaking down electronics by hand, burning the casings off wires and separating components with acid baths, to access the valuable scrap metals inside.

The ecological and human toll was heartbreaking. Soil and water samples in the recycling zones contained lead and other heavy metals that exceeded every World Health Organization threshold; in one study, 81.8% of children under six surveyed were suffering from lead poisoning. The Chinese government has since cleared many of the informal recycling shops in Guiyu and concentrated e-waste inside allocated industrial zones. But while China's imports have fallen, the amount we produce has only grown. For the last few years, the most notorious destination for western electronics has been not China but a slum in Accra, Ghana. Dubbed "the world's largest e-waste dump", Agbogbloshie has been the subject of harrowing press coverage, as well as many viral YouTube films (most shot by white westerners).

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I remember being horrified by the images: barefoot "burner boys" torching scrap wire as toxic fumes billowed from scorched earth; others cracking open imported phones against the backdrop of a dilapidated slum. Once again, it seemed, western waste electronics were being dumped on the world's poor, who were reaping the toxic consequences. I decided I needed to see it for myself, and it turns out the reality is not quite so simple.

It's a glorious day in Accra when I arrive outside Evans Queye's electronics shop. "Welcome!" Queye, who is expecting me, steps out to offer a warm handshake. A spectacled man with a bright smile and a taste for even brighter shirts, Queye is an electronics importer who buys used laptops from the Netherlands to resell in Accra's thriving secondhand market.

"Our biggest market is schools," he says, gesturing into an open-fronted unit with sun-baked brickwork and faded signage, on the end of a row of similar shops. Inside, I spot several dozen new-looking Dell boxes, stacked chest high. Children have recently returned to classrooms after the pandemic and orders are picking up again. "Some of these have come from schools in Holland and will go to schools in Ghana. Come," Queye says, gesturing at the high sun and perhaps noticing the sweat pooling at my neck. "We’ll talk in my office."

Queye's office is a few blocks away and as we drive there in his Volvo, I notice more repair shops. Outside one, rows of old Sony TVs hide in the shade of an awning. At another, kitchen appliances – almost all imported – spill into the street. Ghana's economy, like many in this part of Africa, is built on the secondhand trade. Every year, more than 1.2m containers pass through the nearby port of Tema, loaded with pre-owned goods from the US, Europe and Asia. Not only electronics, but clothing and cars, too. In 2009, the last year with solid data, Ghana imported 215,000 tonnes of electronics, 70% of it used. The imports are by necessity, as much as anything: the minimum wage in Ghana is just 12.53 cedis (90p) an hour, so few people can afford to buy new. That's where repairers like Queye come in.

His office is a cool, welcoming place, the desk dotted with old laptops, a ceiling fan looping lazily overhead. Queye has worked in the secondhand trade since he left school, in 2002. These days, he is a rep for Snew BV, a "circular telecoms" company based in the Netherlands, which collects used electronics from across Europe for resale. The newer models are resold in Europe, the older ones in Africa, where prices are lower. "The standard model we receive is five years old. But we can use a machine for as much as 15 years. I have a Pentium IV ... " He pulls out a Dell laptop that must be at least a decade old (Intel stopped making the Pentium IV in 2008). "I’ve been using it a very long time and it's working perfectly."

Later, Queye drives me across town to Danke IT Systems, a small repair shop on the second storey of a strip mall. It's a tiny place, internet cafe-style, with a handful of machines set up for customers. The manager, a bright-eyed, bald 39-year-old named Wisdom Amoo, sits behind his desk with a laptop on his lap and a screwdriver in his hand. The cubbyholes and drawers around him are brimful of laptops and parts: Dells, mostly, but also machines from HP, Lenovo, Asus, Apple.

Amoo has just finished with the HP in his hands, which had a broken charging port. The part is soldered down, so he has improvised by converting a display port to accept a charging cable. "I need to cut a hole here and replace it with parts from another machine," he says, gesturing with a precise finger. Certain models tend to have the same issues – screen burn in one, faulty trackpads in another – and repair work is a delicate skill: a single slip with a soldering iron can ruin a laptop rather than fix it. When he's soldering, Amoo holds his breath.

In Accra, Queye explains, the scrap recyclers from dumps such as Agbogbloshie are part of the repair ecosystem. "If the repair shops had a machine that could not be repaired, then the scrap boys would pick it up and take it to Agbogbloshie. Then the repair shops would go down there to see if they could source parts. If I need a part for a TV with a working screen but a broken power system, by chance, I might find the same TV with a broken screen but the power system working." Only after usable parts had been extracted would the remainder be dismantled and sold off for scrap.

This, Queye explains, is the context often overlooked in western media stories about Agbogbloshie. E-waste is not coming to Ghana to be dumped; it's coming to be used. In that sense Agbogbloshie was not "the world's largest e-waste dump".

It's a neighbourhood, home to schools, markets, churches and to a large informal settlement, Old Fadama, which houses an estimated 100,000 people, many immigrants from the poor northern regions of Ghana. The "dump" was a scrapyard – albeit a very large and well documented one, where the environmental controls were tragically lacking.

I’m writing in the past tense because Agbogbloshie no longer exists – at least, not in the form it once did. In 2021, the Ghanaian police raided and demolished the scrapyard. A couple of days after meeting Queye, I head there to see it for myself. From Old Fadama, I can look out across the Odaw River to where it once stood. The site has been razed. Bare earth covers the area of the former scrapyard and shops, a handful of heavy earth movers still dragging topsoil around. The government supposedly plans to build a hospital there.

I don't intend to minimise the pollution caused at Agbogbloshie, which was nothing short of horrifying. The toxic toll of burning and dismantling the e-waste polluted the soil, the groundwater, the workers and even the food. In 2011, a Ghanaian researcher found soil at a nearby school exceeded European safety standards twelvefold; in another study, eggs from chickens living in the settlement contained 220 times the tolerable daily intake of dioxins. Agbogbloshie might not have been the largest e-waste dump in the world, but it was almost certainly among the most polluted.

With Agbogbloshie gone, many of the scrappers have simply crossed the river into Old Fadama, itself a sprawling place: colourful wooden dwellings separated by thin mud lanes, so close as to be almost on top of one another. Inside, some inhabitants sleep eight to a room. Few of the buildings have toilets or running water. The scrap workers have set up shop around the edge of the slum, on the river beach. There, several dozen men are dismantling waste: hammering apart old engine blocks and tearing down refrigerators. Here, a teenage boy is cutting up a gearbox while an older man prises the springs from an old car seat. With nowhere to keep their stocks, the scrappers store them in the open. One tangle of old bicycles looks like the aftermath of a collision on the Tour de France. The ground is flecked with snapped fragments of TV casings and old motherboards, which chickens and goats pick through, looking for lunch.

The burner boys have set up as far from the houses as possible, out beyond the children playing football. A dozen are gathered around a makeshift fire pit, carrying nests of wire on metal poles, which they press into the flames. The plastic melts away like marshmallow, giving off smoke. The air is singed with the wretched stench of plastics and burning solder. I want to talk to some of them, but my colleagues advise me not to. Since the government clearance, some of the scrap workers have become angry with western interlopers, whom they justifiably blame for the government's decision to knock down their old homes. "They have given thousands of interviews," Queye says. "They were still evicted."

But Queye has known many of the scrap boys for years and offers to introduce me to some at his office. When I turn up next day, half a dozen young men – some of whom I’d still consider children – file in, looking down, wearing flip-flops and the tattered shirts of rich European football teams: Juventus, Chelsea, Real Madrid. Most are not from Accra. "We’re all from the north," Yakubu Sumani, a wiry young man in tired black jeans and a brown T-shirt says.

Sumani had worked in the scrapyard since he was 15, earning 15-20 cedis (£1.10-£1.40) a day, buying and selling material. It wasn't easy or glamorous, but it paid better than other jobs in the informal sector; many of the young men were able to earn enough to send some money back to their families.

Sumani recalls the clearing of Agbogbloshie: "The police came with weapons. They were arresting us. They beat some of us." The scrappers scattered, some returning home, to scrap jobs in the north. "We have a lot of people who are displaced," Queye says, quietly.

By destroying Agbogbloshie, the government has not eliminated the e-waste, but spread it. "The waste is still in the system. But where is it now? You can't find it because it is scattered all over." Queye and other scrap traders argue that it would be better to formalise the trade in Ghana: allocate an industrial zone, provide health and safety rules, give workers formal recognition and social support, such as pensions. "None of them have any savings," he says. "What they make, they eat that night." He fears the country will soon follow in the footsteps of others, including China, India, Thailand and Uganda, and ban the import of used electronics entirely. "If it happens here," he says, "we are doomed."

Too often, the way we talk about e-waste falls into a kind of guilt trap: aren't we terrible, for inflicting our waste on others. But the story is rarely that simple. To see exports as "dumping" ignores the local importers and the reasons they do it. That isn't to say we should permit dumping, but rather recognise that, for consumers in the global north, our role in this story is more difficult. (And that we aren't always the protagonist.) A more serious attitude to e-waste might ask why extended producer responsibility schemes – in which technology companies pay into a central fund that goes towards recycling and product end-of-life programmes – aren't sending far more money into the global south, where their devices end up. When we discuss the right to repair and obsolescence, we rarely see the last links in the chain, the people who often use those products the longest. Who is listening to their voices? Where are they at the table? As the journalist Adam Minter writes in his scrap travelogue Junkyard Planet: "When you think about it, insisting Africa's secondhand traders adopt Europe's definition of ‘waste’ ... is a kind of colonialism."

As I step out of Queye's office into the bright sunlight, I’m reminded of something he’d said that first morning we met. "Every machine one way or the other will die." Then he’d grinned that irresistible grin. "Like humans: everything has a lifespan."

This is an edited extract from Wasteland: The Dirty Truth About What We Throw Away, Where It Goes, and Why It Matters by Oliver Franklin-Wallis, published by Simon & Schuster on 22 June at £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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