Dystopia Now!

A terrible disaster has occurred. Where once clean waters flowed through river valleys, now there is nothing but a wasteland. The people who remain are left to pick through the mounds of rubbish in the hope of finding something, anything, they can sell to pay for a bowl of food.

Children burn cables to extract copper from the fire-retardant cladding. Belching forth from shallow pits in the earth, toxic fumes creep over the shanty town on the other side of the river. These miasmas bring diseases that inflame the lungs, burn the eyes, and leave the seed of cancer to germinate in their victims. Sick as they are, the few medical resources available to the population come from street vendors, who have nothing to sell except for painkillers: a mixture of caffeine and paracetamol.

As the victims of this calamity make their way over the ravaged world, a new generation grows up, almost wholly ignorant of what has gone before. They can hardly imagine that beneath the broken glass of television screens and under the shattered shells of hard drives, there were once lush pastures.

Others know how things have changed. The fishermen who dredge up bits of wire and fragments of plastic in their nets, know that the oily sea used to teem with fish. Now the only silver streak twirling in their net is a tiddler or two alongside the gleaming aluminium.

It is the stuff of science fiction: a diverting fantasy for writers to compose in their living rooms. Alas, it isn’t fantasy. In fact, it isn’t even fiction. All of this is happening right now. It is daily life for many people in the developing world. Our fictional nightmare is their daily reality.

Source: the documentary "I la tele, l'ordinador i el mòbil, on van?" seen on TV3 Catalunya (c) RTS - TEMPS PRESENT 2012

Source: the documentary “I la tele, l’ordinador i el mòbil, on van?” seen on TV3 Catalunya (c) RTS – TEMPS PRESENT 2012

Ghana is overwhelmed by rubbish transported there from Europe and elsewhere. Most of these materials are supposed to be used again. The streets are full of mechanics and self-taught engineers who can make mobiles ring again with little more than a pair of pliers and a soldering iron. Unfortunately, they cannot repair everything. When something is beyond even their powers of recuperation, it is often just dumped at the edge of town, creating a dystopian horror story.

The sad thing is that none of this is necessary. Objects such as computers are full of precious metals, including platinum and gold. It is cheaper to extract these from manufactured objects than to dig them up in mines. Some companies in the West are doing this now, and they produce so much gold from recycling that it spills out of trays like popcorn at your local cinema. This does not happen enough.

Many DVD players, videos and tablets are plucked out of rubbish dumps in the West and pushed onto container ships bound for Ghana and other countries. Checks on these containers are minimal. The authorities are overwhelmed by the number of containers. In addition, Europe is more interested in stopping illegal goods entering the Union than preventing possibly toxic waste from  leaving. Who cares where the rubbish goes? Ghana is far away. It’s a six-hour flight from London, after all.

It is not enough to shrug our shoulders and treat this disaster as inevitable. London is a good example of a city that was badly polluted but still recovered. Once, the Thames was dead to fish and a carrier of diseases like typhoid and cholera. Only sixty years ago, the city’s streets were choked with smog that killed people as they slept. London recovered and so can Ghana and other countries. They need our help. We need to put pressure on politicians to control the recycling process better. We need to put pressure on manufacturers to take back all the tablets, computers and gadgets that they manufacture – and we need to advertise this fact so people know that they can get rid of their mobile via ‘return to sender’.

There’s gold in that thar rubbish, which we should be exploiting, rather than pouring mercury into rivers overseas.

This blog was inspired directly by a programme I saw on TV3 in Catalunya, featuring the campaigning work of local Ghanian journalist:


4 responses to “Dystopia Now!

  1. Excellent piece Alastair. A nice bringing out of both the moral and the economic arguments. Curious how often the exploitative option is also, ultimately, the less efficient. We don’t even have the paltry excuse of market incentives to justify our behaviour.

    • Thanks, Max. That’s exactly how I feel. I was gob-smacked when I discovered how valuable the materials are in gadgets which we just throw away. I didn’t even go into the conflict that is taking place in other parts of Africa, fuelled by the demand for rare metals in mobile phones. It is a wholly preventable disaster.

  2. Fully agree with your blog Al – too many blind eyes. We need to start burning the plastic waste using state of the art filters on the incinerators. The valuable stuff would be extracted before it reached the furnace – for recycling. Dad

    • Plastic is key too – I still can’t believe that we just dump it in the ground. Here in Spain, we have big recycling bins in the street and you put all packaging in there together: metal and plastic in the same bin. I always wondered how they separate it afterwards, Did big magnets extract the cans? Do they melt the plastic so it separates from the metal? Er, no. They do it all by hand…