Documentary Chronicles the Never-Ending Odyssey of U.S. E-Waste

Filmmaker Isaac Brown examines a computer's end-of-life options.

Isaac Brown films a young computer scrapper as he pulls apart a circuit board in Agbogbloshie dumpsite in Accra, Ghana. (Photo: Courtesy of Isaac Brown)

Feb 29, 2012· 4 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

Despite the endless piles of e-waste he’s seen, traipsed over, and documented, filmmaker Isaac Brown’s view of the future of America’s fastest growing trash stream remains optimistic.

“The technology exists to recycle this e-waste properly,” says Brown, in an exclusive interview with TakePart. “It’s not unknown on what the pathway forward is.”

Brown’s new documentary, Terra Blight, examines America’s consumption of computers and the hazardous waste created in pursuit of the latest technology. From a 13-year-old Ghanaian who smashes obsolete monitors to salvage copper to a 3,000-person video-game party in Texas, it explores the unseen realities of this ever-growing waste stream. The film premiered last month at the Slamdance Flim Festival.

As far as national legislation, there is only this: a law that prohibits the exportation of CRT monitors, which contain pounds of lead. Other than that, it’s like the Wild Wild West—there is no real law in our country that says you can’t ship this stuff overseas.

In 2009, Americans discarded 3,190,000 tons of it, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Although e-waste is a general term, it can be considered to cover televisions, computers, mobile phones, toasters—basically any item with circuitry or electrical components with power or battery supply.

While there is no federal law banning e-waste, 26 states have passed legislation mandating statewide e-waste recycling.

TakePart caught up with Brown to discuss all things e-waste, including why the United States is the only industrialized country that does not prohibit its exportation.

TakePart: Why aren’t computers a green technology?

Isaac Brown: I would say that there is a misconception about computers—that we might save trees by not printing documents, or something along those lines. But the amount of mining waste to produce the elements in a computer is astronomical. That’s just the process of manufacturing the computer alone. Eighty percent of the energy used by a desktop computer throughout its life cycle is used to make the computer, not actually by using it.

TakePart: There are a lot of scary e-waste facts out there, but what’s the one that frightens you the most?

Isaac Brown: Probably how much we buy. How our consumption of consumer electronics is speeding up. The trend is: we’re getting more, faster.

TakePart: So is it not an e-waste problem, but rather a consumption problem?

Isaac Brown: I think that they go hand-in-hand. I really do. The technology exists to recycle e-waste properly. It’s not unknown on what the pathway forward is. We have the technology to break it down to its component pieces, and to smelt it at certified facilities where it’s going be recycled into new material.

And there is actually more per capita rare earth in old IT equipment than there is in mining operations. So, the technology exists—but the question is, are we as a society going to recognize that we need to do the right thing? When I speak to these e-waste recyclers, I hear time and time again that their biggest problem is awareness.

TakePart: Make the case to our readers that the term shouldn’t be “e-waste” but rather should be “e-commodity.”

Isaac Brown: If you were to take your computer apart, you would find all sorts of precious metals—all sorts of elements that can be reused. Whether it is an e-waste or an e-commodity is solely up to your readers—the choice they make on what they do will determine if it’s a trash or treasure.

TakePart: Many American companies that want to send their old computers to developing nations, like Ghana, mean well. But often times they’re sending computers that are 10 or 15 years old. So are they breaking the law by calling these computers a donation when in reality its free dumping?

Isaac Brown: That is an excellent question. Last time I check, there are 26 different states that have enacted some sort of state-level pieces of legislation in terms of e-waste. As far as national legislation, there is only this: a law that prohibits the exportation of CRT monitors, which contain pounds of lead. Other than that, it’s like the Wild Wild West—there is no real law in our country that says you can’t ship this stuff overseas. In 1989, many countries came together and ratified the Basel Convention which would prohibit the trans-boundary movement. The United States was one of only three countries that signed the convention, but didn’t ratify it. The other two were Afghanistan and Haiti. We are the largest producer of e-waste in the world, but we’re the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have a real solution on what to do with it.

TakePart: It’s kind of mind-boggling to me that in an economy so bad no one’s come up with the idea to profit off of e-waste. This is free money, just sitting there, right?

Isaac Brown: This is what happens, from what we’ve been able to find out. Say you and I want to start a recycling business for electronics-waste. We have an event. We set up in a library parking lot. We advertise in local papers: “Bring us your old scraps.” Everybody comes out in droves because they’ve had this stuff in their basement, their attics for years. They have a sense that they shouldn’t be throwing it away. And they give it to us—assuming that we’re going to do the right thing. So now me and you as recyclers have a choice. We can try to take it apart in this country and pay people minimum wage and have this huge capital investment of the technology that it would take to do it the right way. This would cost, say, five bucks a television—whatever it may be. Or we could sell the stuff to a developing nation who would pay us for it in the off chance that they would salvage some of the working components of it.

This why there’s such a huge problem. I think the number is something like 80 percent of the e-waste that is collected for recycling is shipped to a place where its being dumped and then scavenged.

TakePart: What’s one thing that one person can do that costs less than five dollars or takes less than five minutes to solve the e-waste problem?

Isaac Brown: They best thing folks can do if they’re short on time and short on money is to check out Electronics Takeback Coalition. They’ve got it all laid out. They’re going to help you find a responsible recycler, they can help you contact a manufacturers and legislatures to phase out the toxics of the components and to make sure that they’re not shipped overseas.