(artwork by GJ Lee)
By Georg Hobmeier, Causa Creations
Hello, my name is Arun and I recycle electronic waste. I don't exist, but there are many like myself. We live in China, India, Vietnam, Nigeria, Ghana, and many other countries in the Global South. You find us in shanty towns, on the outskirts of the big cities, in dirty backyard workshops. We handle trash for a living. Expensive electronic trash. The kind you probably have in your pocket, you know? All that contains copper, gold, platinum, and many other substances. We harvest and recycle components to meet the world's increasing demand for cheap electronics.
We burn boards. We burn cables. We dump transistors in acid baths. We sand old televisions. We don't get protective equipment to do any of this. No one tells us about the dangerous fumes that are created when we harvest trinkets and toys from the first world and our own rich locals. We don't know what inhaling lead can do to our bodies, how bromium can destroy our lungs even on first exposure. Most of us have never gone to school and have never heard of dioxin and what damage it can do.
Some of us are young and should be in school. I'm told we should be learning how to read and write instead of burning cables over fires made from styrofoam and plastic. Instead, we're spending our shortened lives in the trashyards, until our lungs burn when breathing, our eyes stop working from chronic lead poisoning, until our short life ends somewhere in the gutter. We are all dying, and we don't even know it.
I came from a village, somewhere in the dry planes. Or at least that's the story someone wrote. There are many like myself. People thrown out of their houses or off their land. Farmers with a small field and garden, robbed by powerful and greedy neighbours. Some of us are escaping violent unrest. Some of us are just unlucky. One season without rain means can mean fleeing to the big city to feed our families. Sometimes there are big infrastructure projects that are supposed to bring prosperity. Huge mines or a powerful dams. It doesn't matter to us, we have to leave nevertheless. We're all "trying to make it in the big city."
I'm a character in a game where people can have a go at what I'm doing every day. It's pretty strange, thinking of people enjoying this – my life, my work – as a game. I've tried but it's tricky to show you toxic fumes I inhale every day through a screen, you know? Someone clever designed a score that shows my health. It's a little red bar that goes down every time I go to work. But I get that it's hard to describe how that feels physically. I get how someone playing a day of my life for a few minutes, somewhere in a subway or a cafe, will find this stuff pretty simplistic and morbid.
There are a few buttons for someone to manage my daily business, but that's as close as you get. It's a good thing, too! This is a job? A lifestyle? A thousand coughs, my skin itching, my hands full of heat blisters. The little red bar doesn't take into account that I walk for miles every day, starting out from the little room where my family lives to reach the backyard factory down at the river to work for Mister Chopra.
Don't get me wrong, he's not a bad man. I don't mean to complain. We are in fact quite lucky. A lot of people in other scrap yards work hard and die young. They have no chance at all. With Mister Chopra, there is at least progress, even some sort of hope. But, well, he's not real either.
We're figments of someone's imagination, inspired by a dire reality. We are millions and we handle 50 million tons of electronic waste. That's the amount produced by the world in a single year. I'm told a lot of the parts I handle come from companies elsewhere who don't follow the law because exporting the waste to "the Global South" is cheaper. It makes sense. We don't make a lot from this work. I guess someone else gets the profits. I guess that's what it takes to keep product costs and life expectancy low.
We are all dying. We wish to inform you, too.
Developed in 2014, Burn The Boards is a mobile game designed by Causa Creations to expose the reality of the informal worker breaking down e-waste for a living. www.burntheboards.net