What happens to that iPod Nano you replaced? That bulky television set rendered obsolete by the newest LED-screen model? If you’ve ever been curious about where your “e-waste” ends up, the documentary Terra Blight will shed some light on this mystery. And the truth can sometimes hurt.
Last Tuesday, Terra Blight’s director, Isaac Brown, and producer, Ana Habib, presented their film at PSU’s Urban Center Building to a crowd of several dozen. The screening, presented by Portland State Campus Sustainability Office and Environmental Club as well as local nonprofit Free Geek, offered a glimpse at the consequences of rapid technological advancement.
The film follows the life cycle of electronics, from cradle to grave. The film begins and ends at an electronics dump site in Ghana, and the torched, blighted landscape provides the film’s backdrop.
At the dumpsite we meet Isaiah Attah, a young child who, along with many other boys, spends his weekends scavenging for the copper and iron trapped inside old computer monitors and televisions. The boys often work barefoot, exposing themselves to the lead that seeps out of the obsolete machines and to the shattered glass littered across the ground.
Brown juxtaposes Attah’s precarious scavenging with Geoff Goetz, a sales manager at CompUSA who stands on the sales floor in front of dozens of shiny new computers.
Using computers “is like taking a drink of water,” Goetz says without a hint of irony. “People don’t even think about it.”
Goetz’s proclamation works as an organizing theme for the film: We don’t think about computers, even as we spend eight hours in front of one at work and unwind in front of one afterward. The film uses this technique—backtracking from a computer’s final resting place in Ghana to the site of its mindless consumption by Westerners—often, to great effect.
Terra Blight’s most conspicuous example of our collective disregard for accumulating e-waste occurs annually in Houston, Tex., at the world’s biggest LAN (short for local area network) party, QuakeCon. We watch as an electrician must equip a convention center with enough Internet to topple small governments—the density of cords in this one room is terrifying.
After the film, Brown discussed the inclusion of QuakeCon, explaining that he felt it illustrated the need for our culture to “keep up with the Joneses,” as one QuakeCon attendee put it.
While it is easy to marvel at the progression of technology and forget about last year’s models in the excitement of acquiring the newest upgrade, Terra Blight makes a convincing argument for responsible use and disposal of electronic devices.
“Our message is not, in any way, antitechnology. We love technology; we used computers and electronics to make the film,” Habib said. “Technology is an accomplishment to celebrate. We want to help inspire a different approach so future generations can continue to enjoy and use technology while not consuming too many natural resources, because there are only so many left.”
The onus for much of the colossal amounts of e-waste in dump sites in places like Ghana falls on the U.S. government. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that permits the shipment of electronic waste to other countries—which are, invariably, developing nations like Ghana, Taiwan or Vietnam. By highlighting the failures of our nation and government to deal with this growing problem (electronic waste is America’s fastest-growing waste stream), Terra Blight draws a line in the sand. The way forward, both the film and the panel indicated, is through true e-waste recycling—the kind of work that Free Geek does.
This is ultimately the message of the film: Yes, the situation is dire, especially for metal scavengers like Isaiah Attah; but change can come from this denuded landscape. It is only through grassroots political action that governments will change.
The screening at PSU was a part of what Brown called the film’s “awareness tour,” and those interested in seeing the film can catch Terra Blight on Nov. 8 in Seattle, Wash., the next stop on the film’s tour.
Terra Blight’s distribution rights were recently purchased after its debut at the Slamdance Film Festival in January. Those interested in learning more about the film are invited to “like” it on Facebook—hopefully from a computer that will end up reused or recycled and not in a landfill.