Need to Know

Photographer Documents Cruel Reality of E-Waste Recovery Globally

German photographer Kai Löffelbein spent seven years documenting the harsh reality of how valuable metals are recovered from e-waste in countries around the world.

Much of the staggering amount of e-waste generated globally ends up shipped to countries where the devices end up in dumps that people pick through manually to recover the valuable gold, silver and other metals inside the devices.

German photographer Kai Löffelbein spent seven years documenting the harsh reality of these conditions. His forthcoming book, CTRL-X: A Topography of E-Waste, contains photographs he took in Ghana, China, and India, where much of the world’s e-waste ends up.

Wired has a report on the book and a glance at some of Löffelbein's work.

The photographer witnessed other workers using stones to break open electrical devices. One of his favorite photographs is of a boy in a Barcelona soccer jersey hoisting the skeleton of a television above his head like a trophy against a background of billowing black smoke.

Löffelbein next visited the Chinese city of Guiyu, home to a lucrative and efficient e-waste industry. Here, broken devices are disassembled in small workshops or janky warehouses. In one photograph, two women sit at work desks, an enormous pile of extracted circuit boards between them. China has tried to cut down on e-waste imports, but the total amount, including items discarded by its own citizens, doubled between 2010 and 2015. Because of the air, soil, and water pollution generated by all that e-waste, officials in Guiyu try to keep the city’s scavenging industry under wraps, an effort that lead to Löffelbein being detained by local police.

Of all the locations he visited, Löffelbein found the air pollution worst outside of New Delhi, where there’s an entire commercial district devoted to e-waste recovery, including the same kind of cable burning he saw in Accra. "That was the one time I thought it would be better to wear a gas mask, because I really felt my lungs were burning," he says.

Read the full story here.

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