A New Documentary Confronts the Health, Environmental Toll of Computer Dumping

Isaac Brown

To support his family, Isaiah Attah, 13, sifts through mounds of e-waste searching for parts he might sell. He exposes himself to lead and other materials leaking from computers shipped from the United States and dumped in toxic lagoons like the one Isaiah digs through in Ghana.

The label on one computer in the lagoon: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Terra Blight is the latest documentary from the team at Jellyfish Smack Productions, whose filmmakers traveled four years across the United States, Latin America, and Africa to record the life cycle of the computer–a cycle that begins with manufacturing in developed nations but often ends in the backyards of people living on the fringes of society in developing ones.

While filming in the United States, Terra Blight’s creators followed the cultural and environmental legacy of computer giant IBM. In 2002, scientists discovered a large underground chemical plume left behind from IBM’s former manufacturing center in Endicott, New York. Residents there were exposed to water tainted with Trichloroethylene (TCE), a chemical linked to cancer, among other illnesses. The U.S. government has not yet released the results of a study to determine whether the city’s residents and former IBM employees have increased rates of certain cancers, suffer from kidney failure, or whether the children of employees have higher rates of birth defects.

Terra Blight has screened in the U.S., Latin America, and recently won the Best Science Communication Film at the Reel Earth Environmental Film Festival in New Zealand. The World Bank financed the translation of the film into Spanish.

Isaac Brown* and Ana Paula Habib spoke to berlinSCI about their film, which they hope will foster consumer awareness and further international regulation of computer manufacturing.

Some facts the filmmakers cite:

  • 70 percent of America’s e-waste is buried in a landfill.
  • Most of the e-waste collected for recycling in the United States is actually sent to a developing country to be broken down.
  • Recycling metals from e‐waste uses a fraction of the energy needed to mine new metals.
  • 81 percent of a desktop computer’s energy use is in making the computer, not using it.
  • E‐waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world.
  • 20 to 50 million metric tons of e‐waste is disposed of worldwide each year.
  • The United States is the only industrialized country that does not prohibit the export of its e-waste.

How did you guys decide to come up with this topic? I know the life cycle of computers has been talked about politically before, but why did you feel you were the right people to tell this story?

(Isaac) This is kind of a continuation of a theme for us. In 2004, I released a somewhat comical documentary called Gimme Green about America’s cultural obsession with the lawn. It also discussed the strain lawns put on natural resources, such as water. But this theme… the ignorance of the consequences of our consumption… seemed so natural to film. E-waste has been in the news. Both 60 Minutes and National Geographic have covered it. When you see the larger progress of this technology, everyone is rabid about the next ‘new thing,’ but few people are considering what to do with last year’s thing.

What about the high-end technology you used to film and edit Terra Blight? Isn’t that a ‘new’ thing?

(Isaac) We are very much in that club, considering that we started shooting on the same camera I’d been using in 2004. We got a year into production of Terra Blight and it (the technology) was a dead format. By the time we were finished, we thought no one is going to want it. After filming 20 hours of footage, we made the decision to upgrade our camera.

(Ana) We’re not saying technology is bad. We love technology. We’re part of the society that’s constantly using technology. We’re talking to you on a cell phone. We can embrace technology for all the beautiful things it has given to us, and we try to celebrate that in a moment in the film. If we don’t consider how we use the technology, we’re going to run out of the materials needed to create new technology. The film is a reminder of the more responsible way to consume it.

When you say reminder, do you mean about what happened at IBM in Endicott, New York? You spent time interviewing residents about a toxic spill that happened there.

(Isaac) It was IBM’s hometown, where they manufactured circuit boards for decades, among other things. The people there are still reaping the consequences of a chemical spill that happened in the 1970s that polluted ground water from leaked TCE. There are still 480 homes sitting on top of this chemical spill and polluted ground water.

There was this residential community established after the spill, and these chemical issues weren’t resolved. A lot of that area has been turned into HUD housing, essentially project housing for New York City. It’s another aspect of environmental racism. A lot of people who live there now have no idea what’s going on.

From what we were told from one of our sources, CNN spent four or five days interviewing residents and then decided not to air the segment. You can only speculate what the reason might be.

You mentioned various cancers. How is this connected to IBM?

(Isaac) There was a study, the IBM cancer study, and the results of this will be coming out soon. The researchers know it’s a cancer cluster, but the thing about cancer is it’s difficult to say where it comes from.

How difficult was it to convince sources to go on camera? For instance, that former employee at IBM you interviewed?

(Isaac) Very few folks were resistant to talk.

(Ana) We tried to get an interview with IBM officials while we were filming, but we got no response.

Have you received any push back from anyone?

(Isaac) We did screen at a community college in Endicott and participated in a local radio interview, but no real push back. People don’t seem as concerned as we’d like them to be.

Morally, it was important for us to do this. We made the film on a shoestring budget for four years. We were able to raise enough to cover the cost and travel. But nobody goes into documentary films to become rich. We wanted to show people a side of their shiny new computer, but we wanted to show an aspect beyond the computer. You know, to make it a metaphor about all of our products.

Any response from the U.S. government?

(Ana) No, we haven’t heard too much from them either. No one has really approached us in a negative way, and the people who have were positive. Many students have shared the film with their community.

Have you talked to some of the sources again? What has been the response from that West Coast family you profiled who seemed to have a computer for every room in their home.

(Isaac) We definitely made an effort to contact everyone in the film to make sure they’d seen it. Some have said they really appreciate it. Others haven’t contacted us, and we kind of assume that they’re not entirely happy, like that video game family. When we began filming, we told everyone that this was about the life cycle of the computer.

Everyone in the film represents a larger population. We decided to film the video gamers at QuakeCon, the largest video game party in North America, because they love their computers and they meet in this very visual way. There are no other computer users who meet in a room with 3,000 other people. It’s a representation of how much consumption there is, how we all consume. They visually represent us as a society. To us, it was important to feature a different aspect of that life cycle; they were just one part of the story and we’re not saying video gamers are at fault.

(Ana) If anything, these video gamers often save their old computers and parts, recycling a lot of the parts before discarding.

(Isaac) Yeah, they are souping them up and running them beyond what’s recommended. They’re consuming a lot of energy by running them faster and hotter than the manufacturer says they should.

Isaiah Attah

It’s been four years since you filmed Isaiah, the scrapper who worked in the toxic lagoon in Ghana. Do you know what he’s up to now?

(Isaac) We sent a care package to Isaiah and we got pictures of him wearing a Terra Blight T-shirt. It’s amazing to see how much he’s grown, from 13 to 17 years old. I don’t know if he’s in school or still scrapping for parts.

There’s a scene in the film in which you are prevented from filming at a conference addressing international policy on e-waste. Do you know where international policy currently stands?

(Ana) In the United States they don’t have a system where they do all the processing, but in Brazil they have factories where they do everything under the same roof. Brazil just passed a law that says the manufacturers of the computers are responsible for taking old computers back. So by default, the manufacturer has to consider the afterlife of a computer, because it will be their problem.

In Brazil, do you have a number of home-grown computer manufacturers?

(Ana) These are just new companies starting to build computers in Brazil; the laws haven’t been implemented.

(Isaac) It does seem like the United States is lagging behind the rest of the industrial world by not ratifying the Basel convention, which limits the exportation of these kinds of goods. The only U.S. law I’m aware of prohibits the export of CRT monitors. A friend of ours threw away his monitor in the dumpster a few weeks ago. He hadn’t seen our documentary. I told him, ‘I can’t watch you throw this away.’ And then he said, ‘I called the landfill and they said it was O.K.’ There are landfills in the United States where it’s not unusual to take a CRT monitors and dump it with eight pounds of lead. People used to throw car batteries in the landfill and we don’t do that anymore… you know?

Also, Silicon Valley has this romantic story to it, but they don’t talk about the environmental consequences that happened during technology manufacturing, which include Superfund sites and TCE leaks as well.

Even watching your documentary, I don’t know where to go to drop off my old electronics? There’s no kind of certification system.

(Ana) U.S. retailer Best Buy is committed to using proper recyclers that do not ship waste overseas. There’s always a level of trust, but they have publicly committed to doing this. Most likely, if the company is doing the right thing, they want to advertise it. We hope the person who watches the film will go and research. It would be impossible for us to provide solutions for everyone who watches in various locations around the world. We’d want the viewer to try to go the extra mile to solve the problem within their own reach. That’s the hope.

For more information on how to curb e-waste, visit the take action section at Terra Blight.

Interview conducted by Claudia Adrien

The interview was originally published July 26, 2013 at berlinSCI.com.

*Disclosure: The interviewer worked on a documentary short in 2007 with Isaac Brown. The topic of that film was unrelated to e-waste. Photography courtesy of the filmmakers.

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