Guangzhou, China: A boy waits for customers in his hardware materials store, inside a big shopping mall for electronics. He sells mostly used materials, which can then be used to compose “new” second-hand electronic items.
Lahore, Pakistan: A guy stands in front of a huge pile of electronic components, which will later be processed to extract precious metals.
Lian River, Guiyu, China: A branch of the Lian River, a minor river that flows into the South China Sea. Here, every night, huge piles of electrical and electronic waste, together with other waste derived from the manufacture (another business very present in this region) are accumulated on the banks of the river and are set on fire. These wastes are the last link in the chain, the result of all the processes of cannibalization and recycling. From these materials, it is no longer possible to extract anything that has value. They are burned in the open air, thus creating serious pollution problems for air and the surrounding waterways.
Where does your old computer go when it dies? It probably joins the 40-50 million tonnes of electronic waste, or e-waste, that accrues annually, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. All over the world, there are giant, sprawling fields of poisoned land where piles of tangled cords, cracked computer screens and stained buckets of microchips rust away. In his latest project BIT ROT, Italian photographer Valentino Bellini went to some of the world’s largest e-waste dumps to document the growing heaps of 21st century trash.
The project, shot in several countries, took Bellini three years to complete. He was assisted by several Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) around the globe that focus on this issue, such as the Basel Action Network.
The photographer found that not all e-waste dumps are created equal. In Agbobloshie, Ghana, his first shooting location, the dump was essentially just a massive field. On Walton Road in Lahore, Pakistan, one of the largest electronics markets in South Asia, things were a bit more organized, with shops, stocking warehouses and laboratories where goods were dismantled for scrap.
The hardest part of this project for Bellini was gaining access. As an outsider you never know how people are going to react. The photographer worked closely with local fixers to gain access to these places but sometimes it was still difficult. “In general, many of the owners of the business are aware that they are doing a job that is not allowed by local law,” he says. “The town of Guiyu, China for instance was targeted by reports of several international newspapers. This increased the control by law enforcement agencies. For this reason the people there were careful not to show outsiders their activities or to grant permission to photographers”.
In the end, Bellini was able to bring back powerful images from these places. Seeing them, the sheer amount of trash can be mind-boggling. Bellini’s photographs remind us of the tremendous consequences of our digital fixations.
Kancheepuram Districti, Tamil Nadu, India: Wrecked plastic monitors accumulated in the “plastic segregation” sector of GEMS (Global E-Waste Managment and Services) facilities close to Chennai. GEMS is one of the few companies authorized to treat electric and electronic waste in India. They separate the different parts of the waste, plastic and metallic, and then they sell them to companies specialized in the recycling of those specific materials.
Old Seelampur, New Delhi, India: Old Seelampur is one the poorest suburban areas but the biggest e-waste market in Delhi. There are dozens of retail and wholesale stores. Most of them buy materials from abroad (USA, Europe, Dubai). They buy them for about $10 cents to $15 cents per kilo and they sell them for double the price to other stores. There, they separate the components of the electric and electronic devices in order to sell them again.
Agbobloshie, Accra, Ghana: A young man is transporting electric materials ready to be burned.The materials treated in the Agbobloshie landfill contain substances that are highly toxic for the environment and for human health: Cadmium, lead, phthalates, antimony, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), chlorobenzenes, Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), triphenyl phosphate (TPP), Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs).
Guiyu, China: Mountains of fans accumulated over the years on the edge of a secondary road.
Agbobloshie, Accra, Ghana: A guy resting in the e-waste dump in the capital city Accra. They work all day long, seven days per week..
Lahore, Pakistan: A man stand in front of a pile of electronic components which will be later processed to extract metals.
Agbobloshie, Accra, Ghana: The e-waste dump of Agbobloshie is one of the biggest in Africa. Here, hundreds of young man coming from the northern rural regions of Ghana work every day dismantling and recycling electronic scraps. These processes results in enormous damage to the health of workers and to the surrounding environment. Adjacent to the landfill Agbobloshie is also one of the largest food markets in the city.
Yaocuowei, China: A worker dismantles electronic equipment in his backyard, between the streets of Yaocuowei, a village adjacent to the town of Guiyu, which keeps track of the largest streams of electrical and electronic waste in the world. Here, the vast majority of the population of over one hundred thousand inhabitants is involved in this type of work. The damage to the surrounding environment are incalculable.
All images © Valentino Bellini