Tuesday, June 23, 2009, at 9:00 p.m. ET on PBS


"Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground"

As this month’s digital television conversion makes tens of millions of analog TVs obsolete, and Americans continue to trash old computers and cell phones at alarming rates, FRONTLINE/World presents a global investigation into the dirty secret of the digital age—the dumping of hundreds of millions of pounds of electronic waste around the world each year.

In “Digital Dumping Ground,” airing Tuesday, June 23, 2009, at 9:00 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), producer/correspondent Peter Klein and a team of his graduate journalism students from the University of British Columbia fan out around the world to track “e-waste” to the notorious Sodom and Gomorrah slum of Accra, Ghana, and to the city of Guiyu, China, the largest e-waste dump in the world. Along the way, Klein and his team discover a shadowy industry that is polluting the environment and poisoning the people who live and work among the waste, scavenging for scrap metals. They also find a potentially serious data security threat, as criminal gangs attempt to harvest data from the West’s old computers and cell phones and exploit it.

“This is the dirty little secret of the high-tech industry,” says Jim Puckett, the activist who first exposed China’s digital dumping grounds years ago. Earlier this year, Puckett returned to Guiyu, where thousands of villagers now spend their days dismantling electronics and melting soldered circuit boards to remove valuable chips—practices which have been linked to dangerously high lead levels in both children and in maternal breast milk. “I was here first in 2001, and it was shocking enough then,” Puckett says. “It’s gone from very bad to really horrific. ... What is happening there now is rather apocalyptic.”

In addition to the health and environmental hazards of e-waste dumps, Klein and his team find another danger at an open-air market in Ghana, where hard drives from the United States and elsewhere are being resold, sometimes to criminal gangs who mine them for credit card data, Social Security numbers and other identifying information. One hard drive purchased by Klein and his team turned out to have come from Northrop Grumman, the U.S. defense contractor: Analysis revealed sensitive information about multimillion-dollar contracts with the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security. The FBI expressed concern about this security breach, and Northrop Grumman has acknowledged it is looking into how its hardware and data ended up in Ghana.

There is an international treaty banning the export of hazardous waste, but the United States is one of only a few countries—others include Haiti and Afghanistan—which have not ratified it. By contrast, in India, Klein and his team find the government has recently enacted legislation to set up a formal e-waste recycling industry to deal with the country’s growing domestic e-waste problem, and several Indian high-tech firms now dismantle e-waste safely and securely.

"Egypt: Middle East, Inc.

The Arab world is getting younger—some 70 percent of the population is under 30—but most are unemployed or underemployed. It’s a “demographic time bomb” that many believe threatens the future and security of the entire region.

In “Middle East, Inc.,” correspondent Amanda Pike finds a pioneering new effort called INJAZ, which is attempting to spread a new spirit of entrepreneurialism across the region. “When you have youth who are educated and unemployed, what will they do with their life?” asks Soraya Salti, the director of INJAZ. “If you find a youth who is unemployed, hanging out, who’s going to be the one that takes their hand and says, ‘I’m there for you?’ ... Is that an employer who is going to do that? Or is it the fundamentalists, who are right out there waiting for them?”

Pike focuses on Cairo, Egypt, where the unemployment problem is particularly acute. Here, she tracks three teams of would-be entrepreneurs as they struggle to create their companies, gear up for a head-to-head competition, and compete for the regional INJAZ title. “The only solution for the economic crisis now is young entrepreneurs,” says Abdul Hamid, the captain of one of the Cairo student teams that created a company to manufacture and market pillows for laptop computer users. “Now I know how a factory works. I’m an expert in business without studying business. I learned that from INJAZ in only two months.”

"Vietnam: Wheels of Change

“In developing countries, if you ride a wheelchair, things are hard,” says wheelchair designer—and wheelchair rider—Ralf Hotchkiss. “Pavements [are] rare; public transportation is nonexistent. Virtually nobody who has a wheelchair has a car. They don’t have curb cuts yet. Everything you do you have to go long distances over rocky or sandy or muddy roads.”

In “Wheels of Change,” correspondent Marjorie McAfee pursues one popular solution, the RoughRider wheelchair, which was developed by Hotchkiss, incorporating design ideas and materials from the developing world, and is now being distributed in more than 45 countries around the world thanks to an Open Source design and local manufacturers who have joined Hotchkiss’ Whirlwind Network.

In Vietnam, McAfee finds a country with one of the highest percentages of wheelchair riders in the world, thanks to the legacies of war and epidemics like polio, as well as extraordinarily high rates of traffic accidents. This is also where Hotchkiss’ Whirlwind Network has developed its most successful partnership. The Kien Tuong wheelchair factory in Ho Chi Minh City manufactures more than 3,000 RoughRiders a year and, thanks in part to Western donors, is able to distribute them cheaply—and give away some as well. McAfee finds two new converts to the RoughRider, one of whom says it not only helps him get around the busy city more easily, it’s also improving his ping-pong game.

Ken Dornstein is senior producer for FRONTLINE/World, and Sharon Tiller is series executive director. FRONTLINE/World is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Major funding for FRONTLINE/World is provided by Shell, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and by the Skoll Foundation. FRONTLINE/World is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers and described for people who are blind or visually impaired by the Media Access Group at WGBH. The executive producer of FRONTLINE/World is David Fanning.

Promotional photography can be downloaded from the PBS pressroom.


Press contacts

Diane Buxton
(617) 300-5375


Alissa Rooney
(617) 300-5314