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Stunning Photos Capture Devastating Worldwide E-Waste Problem

A lot has been written about electronic waste. In 2012, 50 million tons of e-waste was generated worldwide, and with the proliferation of smartphones, smart watches and other tech gear, that number will only increase. United Nations officials estimate that the volume of e-waste generated worldwide is expected to climb by 33 percent by 2017 to 65 million tons.

Those cold, hard numbers say a lot, but sometimes the pictures say much more.

People burning electronic scraps at the Agbogbloshie e-waste dump in Accra, Ghana.
The Guardian described the fumes as "head-pounding." Photo Credit: Bit Rot Project

If unused electronic goods aren't gathering dust in the garage, they are either recycled (about 30 percent of the time) or simply thrown away—out of sight, out of mind. But as you scroll through this post on your smartphone or computer, it's important to remember that modern luxuries have a price.

While e-waste in the U.S. only makes up 2 percent of the country's municipal solid waste stream, it's a much more prevalent and devastating problem to less affluent countries, as demonstrated by these haunting images from Italian photographer Valentino Bellini's ongoing Bit Rot Project.

"About 80 percent of the e-waste produced in developed countries (North America and Europe on the top of the list) is not disposed of in situ, but shipped, most of the time illegally, to developing countries on cargo ships, where it is illegally disposed of," Bit Rot said.

A boy in New Delhi, India boils old transistors in metal pots. Boiling the transistors melts away the plastic so the metal parts can be sold. Photo Credit: Bit Rot Project

As the latest products come along and desktop computers, MP3 players and landlines become obsolete, this gadget-driven fervor has generated mountains of toxic trash that poison people and the planet. (And it's not just old Blackberrys and MacBooks, it's everything from old refrigerators, televisions, toys and more.)

"Especially in countries like India, China and some African regions where the technology industry is growing fast," Bit Rot said. "It is hazardous waste, containing dozens of substances dangerous to human health and the environment; it is hard to be sustainably disposed of and it needs a costly processing technique to make it recyclable."

A woman in Lahore, Pakistan takes apart imported electronic devices. Photo Credit: Bit Rot Project

While illegal electronic waste dumping also occurs in the U.S., the appeal of sending e-waste overseas comes down to lower labor costs and fewer regulations. According to a 2013 United Nations report, China is "grappling with the reality of an estimated 20 percent annual rise in domestically generated e-waste combined with a role as one of the planet’s primary dumping grounds for global e-waste—a massive environmental, social and economic burden."

The southeastern town of Guiyu, China is a major e-wastebasket. CNN reported that Guiyu workers burn or process tech gear with hydrochloric acid to recover valuable metals like copper and steel. In the process, it releases toxic heavy metals like lead, beryllium and cadmium into the environment. Hydrocarbon ashes have also polluted the air, water and soil.

A man rips up electronic equipment in his backyard in Yaocuowei, China. He lives by the town of Guiyu, home to thousands of businesses that process e-waste, causing devastating toxic pollution. Photo Credit: Bit Rot Project

Where does all this salvaged tech junk go? Well, back into many homes. "We sell this plastic to Foxconn," a e-waste worker in Guiyu told CNN. As it turns out, Foxconn is a Taiwanese company that manufactures products for many global electronics companies such as Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

"The commercialization process and the capitalistic valorization created a true 'waste economy,'" Bit Rot observed. "This extends the logic behind profit and exploitation even to those scraps that it had produced, creating a never ending cycle that profits from its own death."

The Odaw River in Accra, Ghana is one of the most polluted in the world. Much of the waste comes from the Agbogbloshie e-waste landfill. Photo Credit: Bit Rot Project

We can change our nasty modern habits, but it's very likely a long uphill battle. "Strengthening and enforcing insufficient international laws would thwart massive profits," Bit Rot wrote soberly. "Disposing of a PC by sending it to a dumpster in Africa costs $2, while it would cost $20 to sustainably recycle it."

So what can be done? The UN's Step initiative is tackling the world's behemoth e-waste crisis. The Obama administration also has “serious concerns about unsafe handling of used electronics, especially discarded electronics or e-waste, both domestically and overseas, that results in harm to human health and the environment,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia told U.S. News.

The Global E-Waste Management and Services in Tamil Nadu, India is one of the few companies authorized to treat electric and electronic waste in the country. Photo Credit: Bit Rot Project

It also looks like Americans are becoming more conscious of their own e-waste footprint. Case in point, according to recent data from Recon Analytics, in 2014, the average American replaced their mobile phone every 26.5 months, a vast improvement from every 18 months in 2007.

If you'd like to responsibly dispose of your old tech gear, check out this link to find a e-cycling center near you.

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"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.