Making a living in the toxic world of discarded electronics

Young men transport materials ready to be burnt at Agbobloshie in Accra, Ghana. (Valentino Bellini)
Placeholder while article actions load

The first time photographer Valentino Bellini visited an e-waste dump, he was shocked.

“It was like hell,” Bellini said in a phone interview. “Huge, lots of stuff everywhere. … The air was heavy from burning plastic.”

Bellini’s first experience with e-waste was in 2012, when he visited Agbogbloshie, reportedly the world’s largest e-waste dumping site, in the middle of Ghana’s capitol city, Accra. According to the Atlantic, the dump — once a lush mangrove swamp — is now a field home to thousands of tons of the world’s electronics.

Agbogbloshie had a profound impact on Bellini and became the inspiration for his ongoing project, “BIT ROT,” which documents the disposal of electronic waste and tells the stories of those involved in it. The project has brought Bellini across the globe, from recycling sites in China to warehouses in Pakistan.

According to a United Nations StEP initiative report in 2013, Americans on average each generated 65 pounds of electronic junk, and it’s only going to increase. In the next four years, the global volume of electronic waste is expected to increase by 33 percent; the Guardian points out the increase will weigh as much as eight Egyptian pyramids. The Atlantic reports that up to 80 percent of all discarded electronic devices and appliances end up in dumps similar to Agbogbloshie.

What stuck with Bellini the most at Agbogbloshie were the people working at the site, many of whom he said were middle-school-age boys who smash electronics to get their metals. “The people don’t understand what they are doing and the danger they are facing,” Bellini said.

E-waste workers can come in direct contact with lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and other harmful materials, according to the World Health Organization.

At Agbogbloshie, workers at the dump suffer from “burns, eye damage, lung and back problems … chronic nausea, anorexia, debilitating headaches and respiratory problems,” the Guardian reports.

“I’m trying to change something in the life of the subjects I portray,” Bellini said. By showing lives of the people who are directly affected by e-waste he hopes to put a face on the larger issue, and hopefully it will instill change.

Clarification: The headline in an earlier version of this story read “The children who make a living in the toxic world of discarded electronics.” It has been updated to reflect the many the ages of workers in the photographs.