For more then twenty years, many hundreds of tons of electronic waste—or e-waste—from all around the world has been transported to an infamous Chinese town called Fengjang, just south of Shanghai, for disposal and so-called ‘recycling.’ Around 50,000 migrant workers constitute part of the massive workforce necessary to dispose of e-waste, with the downcycling component of the operations involving cutting, splitting, and salvage—most-often with rudimentary equipment. The workers toil endlessly to process almost 2 million tons of garbage every year, bearing incredible precariousness, and even putting in danger their own health due to the simply unacceptable working conditions and also the toxic characteristics of the metals, chemicals and materials they’re handling. As the recognisable heaps of waste continue to pile up, Heavy Metal provides a moving image of a worldwide consumer society and the stark direct impacts of an ‘invisible’ waste.
A group of graduate journalism students from the University of British Columbia travel to the outskirts of Ghana as part of a global investigation tracking the shadowy industry of e-waste that’s causing big environmental problems around the world. Their guide is a 13-year-old boy named Alex. He shows them his home, a small room in a mass of shanty dwellings, and offers to take them across the dead river—which is literally dead—to a notorious area called Agbogbloshie which is one of the world’s unseen e-waste dumping grounds. Hundreds of millions of tons of waste are funnelled here each year, with more to come as the consumer boom of computers and gadgets increases across the globe—unless drastic action changes the flow of waste and addresses the terrible conditions many have to endure for the technocracy of the West.