Amazing Race Producers Should Be Ashamed of E-Waste ‘Challenge’
As I watched one of my favorite reality TV series – Amazing Race – on Sunday evening, I felt my jaw drop and my blood pressure rise as teams of contestants participated in a competition that blatantly exhibited all of the dangers of e-waste. In the segment, "Fun With Recycling," the “challenge” was for one member of each team to take hammers, cutters and screwdrivers to disassemble a designated number of end-of-lifecycle electronics – tearing into the devices with bare hands and exposing themselves to the toxins that permeate all e-waste. It was pretty darn amazing, all right. But not nearly as amazing as it was pathetic.
CBS, the same network that so masterfully presented the e-waste crisis on 60 Minutes last year, broadcast this episode of Amazing Race as if the producers, and supposedly advertisers, were oblivious to the plight of developing nations where unscrupulous businesses posing as electronics recyclers dump electronics from Western countries like the U.S. In this case, Amazing Race chose what must appear to be a typical business in Vietnam – scrapping end-of-lifecycle electronics.
The episode followed the typical reality show formula – a bunch of excited contestants vied to move further in the game by completing various tasks or “challenges.” Those who finish fastest get to go on to other challenges, while the people who come in last are usually tossed off the show.
What was being tossed on Amazing Race, however, included broken fragments of electronics – everything from circuit boards and wiring to plastic frames – which either contain such toxins as lead, mercury and cadmium or release poisonous toxins into the air when incinerated. For our viewing pleasure, we got to see the Americans involved in the weekly race around the world smacking electronics with hammers and laughing along with the Vietnamese people in the crowd as disassembled devices were broken apart and pieces thrown haphazardly in various piles. If the program’s producers ever bothered to watch 60 Minutes, which airs the hour before Amazing Race, they might’ve understood that while roughly disassembling electronics might make an interesting game show challenge, it represents all that is wrong with the way e-waste is handled today.
As a big fan of host Phil Keoghan, whom I admire for biking across the country in an effort to create greater awareness of multiple sclerosis, I was disappointed when he described the “challenge” as a primer to “recycling” electronics. But Phil probably was merely reading from his script, just as the contestants were likely unaware that they were advertising one of the worst environmental problems today. The shame for this despicable exhibition should go directly to the producers of the series, who apparently are so ignorant of the e-waste crisis that they think it should be fun for people to expose themselves to deadly toxins just as the indigent workers in Vietnam and other developing nations are exposed to dangerous scrap.
As with all Amazing Race challenges, Sunday’s episode reflected cultural situations and included local people who demonstrated how the tasks should be done. The people who routinely perform the disassembly of electronics were indeed represented and continued to work – even though it was clear that they were indigent; sitting barefoot amid all the twisted metal, wearing no gloves or eye protection, no masks or filters to block the inhalation of the dust from the broken electronics.
The first few contestants attacked the devices with hammers and screw drivers, but before the end, one of the more boisterous players was bashing the devices like Bam-Bam from The Flintstones, ripping away the plastic facade and yanking out whatever he found inside. He inferred that he was a better player because he took to Neanderthal destruction tactics.
There is nothing fun or entertaining about the e-waste crisis, and the countries where electronics are dumped by the ton are becoming giant landfills of unwanted toxic materials torn from countless devices. Amazing Race did not show what happens to the piles of broken parts torn from the machines or how they are melted down via primitive methods to extract the metals. The show failed to relate the detrimental long-term health effects of the workers who strip wires for copper with their fingers or melt lead solder from circuit boards so that the toxins are released into the air. The show also did not address how serious the e-waste crisis has become or how it affects everyone around the world.
One of my coworkers who watched Amazing Race with her eight-year-old daughter remarked that they were appalled by the manner in which improper e-waste disposal was displayed in the entertainment venue. Her daughter had attended a hands-on demonstration about the dangers of e-waste during Take Your Child to Work Day at Redemtech earlier this year and pointed out the dangers evident in the images on the television screen during Amazing Race.
If children can grasp the serious blunder Amazing Race committed by presenting a show that practically glorified the horrors of e-waste, it is clear that far bigger “challenges” face our world as we try to educate and warn about a dangerous game that can only be won through greater awareness.