Men and women, faces swaddled in cloth, hunch over steel furnaces. They melt down electronic guts ripped out of laptops and TVs. Under intense heat, gold and copper fused to circuit boards get soft and runny — and can be scraped into basins full of scalding, metallic sludge.
Once it cools, this sludge has value. There’s actually way more gold in 1 ton of computer scrap than in many tons of gold ore. But this process brings terrible costs, namely to human bodies.
As the workers scrape away, they are bathed in dioxin fumes that can cause lesions, brain disorders and cancer. Even those beyond the factory gates are vulnerable. The shredded remains of these electronic devices — chunks of plastic, glass and rubber — are chucked into an incinerator and ultimately disgorged through smokestacks.
Black ash is piped into the sky. This airborne filth can drift for miles and miles, stinging nostrils and killing plant life.
This is hardly what Americans envision when they drop off glitchy laptops or broken printers at their local recycling drop-off center. Yet, what fuels these Southeast Asian scrapyards is junk from afar — typically more affluent places such as Europe, Australia and the US.