By 2017, all of that year’s end-of-life refrigerators, TVs, mobile phones, computers, monitors, e-toys and other products with a battery or electrical cord worldwide could fill a line of 40-ton trucks end-to-end on a highway straddling three quarters of the Equator. United Nations University on Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative
"At first, we dealt with record players, radios, VCRs and black-and-white TVs. Later on, CD and DVD players followed. Finally, computers arrived, and we started business with e-waste," explains Mohammed Moinuddin, an e-waste recycler, sitting in his small village near Kolkata in northeast India.
Nearby lie piles of electronics nearly two meters high. Mostly composed of dark green circuit boards, they are haphazardly stacked against the walls of the village of Sangrampur, a small hamlet located 30 miles south of Kolkata and just 25 miles from the Indian Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Among the multicolored piles of plastic and metals, women, young men and children use small hammers and chisels to pick away at the various circuit boards, breaking them down into increasingly smaller pieces, which are then separated and collected together.
"It’s all collected from Kolkata and brought here, dismantled and broken down," Moinuddin said. "Since 2010, there has been quite an influx in the electronic market. There is increased supply, increased usage, increased waste production and increased dismantling."
The small operation in this village is all part of a growing informal industry in India, which is expanding as a result of the country’s boom in electronic waste.
As a relatively young industry, e-waste recycling occupations are plagued by associated risks that are only now becoming more apparent. Metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic are all present in e-waste. For those workers who spend endless days exposed to dangerous levels of toxic elements with little to no protection while breaking electronics down by hand, the risks are clear.
Globally, an estimated 50 million tons of e-waste are produced annually, with residents of the U.S. and the U.K. generating some of the highest rates worldwide at 30 kg and 22 kg per person, respectively.
Read more and view more images by Pulitzer Center grantee Sean Gallagher. Sean’s recent project looks at pollution in India: Toxic Development: The Cost of Pollution in India