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Field Notes
Photograph by Olli Lamminsalo
Peter Essick
Interview by Glynnis McPhee

Where did you go to photograph High-Tech Trash?

I went to China first, and then I went to recycling facilities in the United States. After that I did a big trip where I went to Austria, Ghana, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan.

Did the volume of High-Tech Trash surprise you?

When I saw ships being unloaded and the piles of high-tech equipment, I knew for certain there was a problem. One thing that was surprising is that I thought I'd go to recycling locations and find big piles of computers outside, like I have seen with tires and plastics, but that's not really done because computers cost so much. In the States they arrive to be recycled, and people start taking them apart immediately. Some of the other places—like Pakistan, India, and Ghana—the trash was pretty prevalent. There would be one village or one area where all the recycling was done, and what couldn't be made use of would be dumped in the river.

Was there a location that stood out as the worst for High-Tech Trash?

There's this whole issue of exporting waste from the developed world to under-developed countries. High-tech recycling doesn't necessarily make money in the United States, so it's shipped elsewhere. In some of the places it ends up, it can be made use of, so one positive is that at least people can make some money off of it. But Ghana isn't really getting much out of recycling high-tech trash except the toxins. There isn't much as far as technology in Ghana, so after the copper wires are stripped out and burned the copper is sold to China or India. All the other parts of the computer stay there as trash.

Did you wear any protective gear while you were photographing?

Well, at first I didn't wear any, but then when I got to this village in India I wore a mask. The whole village did circuit board recycling, and that is a very toxic process. This is where I took the photo of a man using his kitchen pan to melt down part of the circuit board. My fixer and I actually got really bad headaches while we were there so, we probably did inhale toxic chemicals.

What do the villagers think of the chemicals from recycling high-tech equipment?

The man in charge of recycling in that village thought he was helping everyone by giving them jobs. We asked him if he felt bad, and he said it didn't bother him, as far as the toxic part of it. But he may have had an idea that it was wrong, because a lot of the burning was done at night so the clouds couldn't be seen. In general, I don't think people know how toxic the chemicals are and what they can do to you.

What was your experience like in Europe?

Well, in Europe they're the good guys. They've taken the lead as far as laws that mandate recycling, and for the most part they are doing a good job. There is still some exporting to other countries. I saw one piece of equipment in Ghana that I could tell from the kind of plug it was from Europe.

What do you want people to take away from this article?

It would be great to upgrade technology without having to throw away the old gadget entirely. Companies want people to buy the newest and latest technology every six months. If we are going to use technology, we should take care of recycling it and not ship the trash overseas. A recycler in Massachusetts and one in Virginia have shown you can make money from recycling, even in the United States.