E-waste photo essay

Boing Boing points to a photo essay in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, documenting dumps/processing sites handling technology waste mostly from the West. When you hand off a cellphone or an old VCR or laptop to an e-waste recycler with less than impeccable bona fides, most of it probably ends up in a place like this.

I have mixed feelings. Foreign Policy points out that some processing sites in China employ as many as 100,000 people, in — to judge by the pictures — conditions nothing like as wretched as those in, say, a Bangladeshi shipbreaking yard. A big part of what they do in China is physically separate fine components from each other, extracting metals and plastics by hand at a wage that’s adequate there but that you couldn’t find anyone to do the job for in North America or Europe or Australia. Their economic advantage is cheap labour, and they’re using it; if the alternative is that the junk would go into landfills here and the Chinese workers would be unemployed or doing worse work for less money, our current arrangement is preferable.

And then there are images like this one, and the sure knowledge that cheap labour in China is only part of the equation — low environmental and worker-safety standards are the other. It’s one thing to offload work nobody here would choose to do at an economically viable rate, something else to offload work that nobody here would be allowed to do for reasons unrelated to the wage.


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