Tech recycling toxic to people

I'm not certain which sickens me the most, recalling the unavoidable, soul-penetrating, nauseating stench of the putrefying swill among which 60,000-plus squatters live, or envisioning the smiling children innocently playing in the toxic trash heaps and sifting through fetid refuse for salvageable remnants of discarded electronics.

The Agbogbloshie "Market" in Accra, Ghana, is one of the places where the computer we just replaced is sent to be, for lack of a better word, recycled. Replace your thoughts of a sterile lab with white-gowned and masked technicians deconstructing computers with the reality of 10-year-olds burning the poisonous plastic insulation off of copper wire, and inhaling the carcinogenic fumes, all the time standing in the incessant equatorial sun.

Agbogbloshie is a story of despair and unfathomable human misery, of good intentions gone crazy. It's the dirty little secret of the Internet Age, the hidden impact of an economic system whose mantras are "cheaper" and "new and improved" and "disposable." It makes a mockery of the happy, modern Silicon Valley workplace, where brilliant engineers design the latest must-have digital technology, the same brilliant engineers who previously designed the last must-have digital technology whose fumes now cause the open sores and clogged airways of the children. It taints the word "recycle." It's iPad become iPoverty.

It's an indictment of our humanity as well as our blissful ignorance or blind acceptance that exploiting others and poisoning the earth with cadmium, arsenic, lead, PCBs, dioxins and furans are OK if we just don't see it, if it happens in Africa, Asia or South America.

Agbogbloshie could become a model of corporate responsibility, but it won't. It could cause us to re-evaluate whether we need the newest computer or smart phone or whether we say "count me out" of this environmental disaster, insane inhumanity and child abuse from afar, but it won't. Instead, many of us will feel some guilt, as I do every time I use my computer, then move on. Agbogbloshie is a powerful challenge of my perception of myself as a decent person.

I visited the Agbogbloshie Market in April, as part of a group of students and faculty from Coastal Carolina University's Semester at Sea's spring 2010 26,000-mile around-the-world voyage. It was as close to hell as I ever want to be, and I will forever carry the memory, smell the stench, relive the horror, and recall the children through a haze of tears.

Abel is a local environmentalist, author and professor.