Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground

This documentary, which won the 2010 Emmy for Best Investigative Magazine, traced the global trade of electronic waste. With millions of tons of electronics discarded every year, we wanted to see where it all goes. Using public records, we tracked shipping containers filled with so-called “e-waste” and tracked them around the globe: to Ghana, India and China. What we found was not only a health and environmental disaster, but also a genuine security threat.

In Ghana, we found a smoldering wasteland of old computers and televisions, much of it “donated” by people in Europe and North America. In fact, much of electronics are broken, used as a tax write off, and are collected in a former wetland area on the outskirts of the capital Accra — where children smash and burn the e-waste to get at pennies worth of wires. Among the rubble, we fond a computer monitor labeled “School District of Philadelphia.”

At a market in Accra, Ghanaians admitted to us that West African organized criminals sometimes comb through discarded computer hard drives, searching for personal information to use in scams, so we decided to surreptitiously buy some drives and see what we could find. We found social security numbers and other personal data of the original owners, which the FBI supervisory special agent in charge of cybersecurity called “significant” and “important.”

One drive contained documents belonging to the US military contractor Northrop Grumman, and on it we found sensitive details on nearly a billion dollars worth of security contracts with the Defense Intelligence Agency, Federal Air Marshals and the Department of Homeland Security. Northrop Grumman, in a written statement, admitted, “The fact that this information is outside of our control is disconcerting. We appreciate that Frontline has brought the situation to our attention and is working to shed light on this problem in general.”

In China we spent time at the largest e-waste dump in the world, a small town called Guiyu, where thousands of people work day and night dismantling computers. We captured rare footage of the hazardous work being done and spoke with workers about their experiences. In Hong Kong, an e-waste recycler admitted on hidden camera that he knows the work is harmful to the people in Guiyu, but market pressures have created a burgeoning market.

We also visited India, where half the electronic waste is now domestically generated. That country has enacted laws to ban hazardous recycling, including making it illegal to use acid baths as a means to melt old circuit boards. We also visited some high-end recyclers who are paving the way for a new, and lucrative industry of e-waste dismantling.

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