Word by Antonio. Photos by Joel.

Very little can make a room full of moviegoers feel more awkward about their smartphones than seeing families in North Africa and Southeast Asia rummage through mountains of electronic parts to clean and sell for a mere pittance. But if you leave with nothing else after watching The E-Waste Tragedy, a documentary film that traces the causes and consequences of electronic waste, know that we as consumers can still alter the course of recent history. Well, that’s what director Cosima Dannoritzer hopes for, at least.

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is the result of our consumption and rapid disposable from everything to iPhones to refrigerators. Of the estimated 50 million tons of e-waste produced, up to three-quarters of it vanishes from the from the legal recycling system only to reappear in the literal backyards of those in the developing world. Along with the Embassy of Spain, the Goethe-Institut of Washington, D.C. hosted a special screening of the film, followed by a Q&A with Cosima, to discuss next steps in addressing the problem of e-waste.

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Cosima Dannoritzer discusses our flawed electronic recycling system, why jobs won’t disappear if we slow down our consumption, and some practical ways to reduce e-waste.

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Q: Why is your film “The E-Waste Tragedy” important?

COSIMA: I wanted to find out why electronic waste is going to the Third World, if we have recycling technology and recycling plants. That doesn’t make sense to me.

“A lot of people think maybe there are just a few dodgy recyclables or smugglers, but in fact, it’s the entire system that’s completely rotten”

Q: What is the biggest misconception about recycling technological products?

COSIMA: There are two things. One thing, is the quantities. I think a lot of us are not aware that electronic waste is growing, and growing and growing. The other thing is, that a lot of people think maybe there are just a few dodgy recyclables or smugglers, but in fact, it’s the entire system that’s completely rotten. There’s blackholes absolutely everywhere.

THE E-WASTE TRAGEDY – opening sequence from Media 3.14 on Vimeo.

Q: How linked are the ideas of planned obsolescence and e-waste?

COSIMA: Some products have a programmed lifespan and that adds to the growing mountain of e-waste. Some products have a limited lifespan which is in our heads, because we want to have the latest, so we want to replace something that’s still working, so we replace something that’s perfectly alright. Manufacturers are also making it much harder to repair things, or we don’t try, or we think it’s too expensive. There’s a lot of things that contribute, but planned obsolescence is part of it.

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Q: At the end of the film, you’re calling for a change in the social consciousness. How do you think that change can merge with the business incentives, and people wanting to capitalize off the public desire for newest things. Do you think that is possible?

COSIMA: People always worry about jobs. They say, “if we stop doing this, if we stop replacing things, we’ll be out of jobs,” but I don’t think the only economic activity is buying and selling. There used to be activity in repairing, swapping and exchanging. You have business models like iFixit and other companies to help your repair things, so there’s business in selling parts. Other people think we’re going to go back straight to the Middle Ages if we stop replacing like crazy.

“I don’t think the only economic activity is buying and selling. There used to be activity in repairing, swapping and exchanging”

Q: Where did you start your research in studying things like obsolescence, relationship people and technology, and the environment?

COSIMA: I made a film about planned obsolescence, The Light Bulb Conspiracy. That started because I wanted to know if that’s really true, if they make things that break easily or whether that’s an urban myth because we’re annoyed because we have to replace something. Unfortunately, it turned out to be true – it’s all true. It turned out to be worse than I thought, and that led me on to asking myself about the relationship to technology. Who’s in charge? We’re supposed to be designing these things so that they work, and work for us, and they last, and they don’t poison our planet. How come we end up designing something that that is badly done on purpose? That sounds really perverse to me.

“How come we end up designing something that that is badly done on purpose? That sounds really perverse to me”

Q: The process of making film a film uses a lot of technology itself: cameras, computers to edit, distributing the film. What do you do to reduce your own personal environmental footprint?

COSIMA: There’s a big contradiction in that, especially in television, we change equipment all the time, and the software changes, so we all rely on that. Recently, whenever there was a problem with one of my gadgets, I would always at least try to repair it once, and a lot of the time, it’s been surprising, it wasn’t that expensive. I would get my old machine back, I wouldn’t have to reinstall everything, so it actually saves me time

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Q: When you talk about this issue, what are some practical things that you tell people they can do about the problem?

COSIMA: There’s a lot of us out there. We shouldn’t underestimate our own power. We think it’s because these evil companies, but we’re the ones buying. If we stop buying the products that can’t be recycled because it’s all glued-in and you can’t take it apart and repair it, then of course they’re going to keep making these things if they’re successful. If we start repairing things, if we start going to shops and saying hey, why don’t you have spare parts, if everybody does that, they might reappear. We need to raise our voices.

The other thing is that we can use all that technology to exchange information. If I know how to recycle; if I know how to repair something; if I know a trick on how to get something to work again, let’s go to that level with technology. Otherwise, we’re starting from zero, and maybe we don’t have the time. There’s a lot of us and we shouldn’t forget that. We’re the market, we’re buying these things, so that also means that maybe we’ll have the recycling system we deserve, so we should look at ourselves as well.

“We’re the market, we’re buying these things, so that also means that maybe we’ll have the recycling system we deserve”

Q: Where will you be in 5 days, 5 months and 5 years?

COSIMA: In five days, Monday, I think I’ll be talking to my producer abut one of of my new projects. We’ll probably look at the treatment, we’ll see what other channels we can talk to – it’s always a long process. Five months, in August, I don’t think I will be in production by then. I’m hoping I will be in the middle of a fascinating research process, maybe writing a script, because maybe a TV channel has expressed an interest and they want to know more. I’m hoping to talk to fascinating characters who hopefully will say yes to being interviewed. In five years, I hope to have made at least two films and come back to this festival. I was here four years ago, and hopefully we’ll have another film ready and have another debate, because the debate is like the second part of the film.

“If we have the information, we can then think for ourselves and make a decision”

I think we need to get together and think about what we need to do. This film actually came out of the reactions to the previous film, so talking to the audience also gives you lots of ideas, and you sort of find out where are the information gaps, and as a filmmaker, and you can try and fill them, by doing things like explaining the recycling system, which is complex, but making it understandable by putting nice bits of music or whatever and contributing to the flow of information. If we have the information, we can then think for ourselves and make a decision.

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Thank you Cosima for fascinating interview! Be sure to check out the Facebook page for the E-Waste Tragedy to learn more and add to the discussion.

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