In a landfill outside Delhi, a man stands on a pile of circuit boards, washing dirt off of himself with a hose after a day of extracting precious metals from the guts of old computers and cell phones. Nearby, cans of acid sit ready to melt plastic from the boards; in the background, another truckload of e-waste is arriving.
The photo is one of a series German photographer Kai Löffelbein took over the last seven years for a new book called CTRL-X: A Topography of E-Waste, documenting what happens to old phones, laptops, and other gadgets in dumps and workshops in India, Ghana, and China.
As a photographer, surrounded by electronic equipment himself, Löffelbein “started to wonder where all my stuff will end up in the future,” he says. In 2011, he traveled to Agbogbloshie, a dump in the middle of Accra, Ghana, where workers break open old gadgets with their hand or rocks, and burn the coating off of copper cables, with toxic smoke drifting into a neighboring vegetable market.
In India, he visited a district dedicated to electronic waste near Delhi, where workers also dismantle and burn old products to extract materials to sell. Whatever is left is dumped into drains, and pollutants like lead, mercury, and hexavalent chromium leach into soil and drinking water. The country is now one of the largest producers of e-waste in the world and has laws regulating how the waste should be collected and processed, but most of it is still handled in the informal sector.
In China, Löffelbein traveled to Guiyu, a former rice village that became famous as a global center of e-waste. By 2005, roughly 60,000 workers in the city dismantled electronics–much of it coming from the United States–in small workshops. Löffelbein visited in 2013. Since then, the industry has evolved. The government built a large, industrial center for recycling and forced small workshops to join the center or shut down; imported e-waste was banned. But only a small number of workers ended up transitioning to the new center.
“It begged the question, where did all these people go?” says Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a nonprofit that campaigns for the safe handling of old electronics. “Did they give up this kind of work, or did they move it somewhere else? Most people think they moved it elsewhere in China or to Southeast Asia.”
The Basel Action Network uses hidden trackers to watch where electronic waste goes–often shipped from recyclers in the United States that claim to process waste domestically. As waste shifted away from Guiyu, the trackers showed it going to electronic junkyards in Hong Kong. Now, as Hong Kong also begins to crack down on e-waste, the flows of old gadgets are beginning to move again. Countries like Cambodia, Laos, and others in Southeast Asia may become new hotspots.
“Whenever there’s money to be made and people either don’t have the laws in place to restrict it or they’re not enforcing the laws, you’re going to have it going to the path of least resistance and the path of externalizing costs,” says Puckett. “When I say externalizing costs, in other words, it’s cheaper to just let people bear the burden of poisons rather than properly apply cost and money to preventing harm.”
Most of the world–though not the United States–has ratified the Basel Convention, which prohibits sending hazardous waste from more developed countries to less developed countries. But the treaty is often violated, and as more consumers in poorer countries buy products like smartphones, domestic e-waste is also growing. This year, the world will throw out around 50 million tons of electronic waste.