Anatomy of a Myth: the World’s Biggest E-Waste Dump Isn’t.

Let’s start with two photographs.

The first was shot by me in China’s Hunan Province. It shows a warehouse that contains roughly 5,000 old locally-collected televisions awaiting recycling. This photo only captures a portion of what is a big inventory, and a big operation. Every day more arrive. Most people outside of China have never heard of this place, mostly because it is indoors, and difficult for journos and activists to gain access to.

HV2

Next, a photo tagged “e-Waste – field of computers” that I came across while looking at a Google map of Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra, Ghana that everyone from the Guardian to Motherboard has called the world’s “biggest” or “largest” e-waste dump.

Cavanos

There’s nothing good or right in the Agbogbloshie photo. The pollution it depicts is nasty. But if you can get past the shock and evaluate the volume of e-waste in the image, it’s not much – especially compared to what we see in the China photo. Indeed, despite the parade of Agbogbloshie slideshows posted by media outlets over the years, there’s a curious dearth of images showing large volumes of e-waste at the site. Rather, the genre is almost exclusively devoted to pictures of laborers, oftentimes not even processing waste – see this useless and exploitative New York Times slideshow, or this more recent one from Motherboard. My long-standing suspicion has been that there aren’t any great volumes of e-waste at Agbogbloshie, and that most of the journalists and photographers who go there – having had no experience with developing world recycling – document their shock, but not what’s actually happening, frankly because they don’t know better.

This matters. Agbogbloshie has become a global symbol for what’s alleged to be a vast and growing environmental problem: the export of e-waste from the developed world to West Africa. Yet in recent years, academic and UN-sponsored research has shown that the problem is far more complex – and, in all respects, smaller – than what’s being depicted. In other words – we’re not talking about the world’s largest e-waste dump.

So what I’m going to do is show how somebody with actual experience reporting in and around the global recycling industry – especially in the developing world – looks at Agbogbloshie. My background is that of a journalist who has been writing about and photographing the industry for 15 years, and has visited hundreds of recycling facilities, especially in the developing world. In March and April, I visited Accra. Continue reading