Tracking the issue of waste through film

The first installment in the University’s Sustainability Film Series explores technological waste from Minneapolis to Hong Kong.

Maddy Folstein

The iPhone X was released on Friday and thousands of people will upgrade to the latest model, which means thousands of old iPhones will be thrown into recycling bins.

This Thursday, as a part of its Sustainability Film Series, the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment will screen “Luen Hai: Decoding the Connection,” a documentary that explores the trail of technological waste from Minneapolis to Hong Kong.

The film was produced by Extending the Link, a student documentary production group at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. 

“What we do every year is choose an under-told social justice issue that is relevant abroad and applies to our local community,” said Grace Lindquist, one of the co-directors of Extending the Link. “We create a 30-minute documentary… to show the community that they… can make a change.” 

“Luen Hai: Decoding the Connection,” this year’s documentary, focuses on the exports of electronic waste to Hong Kong.

“We settled on Hong Kong because most of our technological waste is being illegally exported to Hong Kong, and they’re having to deal with it,” Lindquist said.

Even cellphone recycling programs at reputable stores contribute to this issue — during the film’s production, Lindquist’s iPhone died, and when she tried to find out where the recycling program she chose would send the phone, she was appalled to hear the employee’s response.

“He said, ‘To be honest, it goes in a warehouse, and no one knows what to do with it,’” Lindquist said. “People don’t know where their electronics go, and it’s no longer a project for them.” 

After producing “Luen Hai: Decoding the Connection,” Lindquist and the Extending the Link production team found that simply asking questions is the best solution to this recycling problem. 

“You can find the ones who are really ethically recycling if they know down the line where the electronics end up. If something doesn’t feel right… it probably isn’t,” Lindquist said. “Also, along with that, try and break the cycle. Don’t need the next greatest thing… If you can fix it, fix it, without getting the newest model.” 

“Luen Hai: Decoding the Connection” is the first film of this year’s Sustainability Film Series. Thursday’s screening is supported by TechDump, a local technology recycling program that will let attendees ethically dispose of their old electronics.

“We have a group of partners that are regular film series partners,” said Stacey White, the sustainability coordinator for the University. “Fitting to whatever the topic of the film is, we’ll invite other student groups in to… talk about their mission and what they do.”

Although the Institute on the Environment is still narrowing down their upcoming screenings, the films will allow viewers to better understand how to take concrete, sustainable actions.

“I see film as a way of thinking creatively about the challenges we have in the world,” said Mary  Hannemann, the sustainability educational coordinator. “I think that art is something that can bring people together and help us be hopeful about the future… It’s an easy entry point to start thinking about a new idea.”