This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.
The screen you're reading this article on contains toxins which, at a certain level of dosage, could actually kill you. Electronics have all sorts of evil stuff inside them: The mercury found in electronic circuits can instantly fry your brain, and in the time it takes to drink a glass of water the arsenic found in microchips could turn your liver into pâté. Hexavalent chromium and cadmium wouldn't make you feel any better either, as they're both carcinogens.
In Romania, these substances are kept out of our air and water thanks to criminals.
There are warehouses in cities across the country where tons of electronic waste is taken apart piece-by-piece and sent for recycling by thieves, thugs, or small-time drug dealers turned defenders of the planet. They protect the nation from cadmium, mercury, and hexavalent chromium like environmental power rangers in a high-tech purgatory.
These guys spend their days among electronic circuits, coils, and cables because since 2007 Romania's courts have been giving criminals a choice between prison and community service smashing old stereos, telephones, laptops, and TVs in these warehouses. A month or so ago, I visited one of these places to see how it all plays out.
In the depot of an ex-communist factory in Bucharest, I found ten people hacking down a computer. They were all silently bending over a workbench, reminding me of fishermen trying not to scare away the fish. I put on an apron and sat down at the convicts' table. I thought I'd seen one of them before. Turns out, Dragoş used to work as a bartender at one of the biggest clubs in Bucharest's Old Town Center. That's until he got busted for a serious-sounding offense which was in fact a petty crime: drug dealing.
"I felt like I was in Dumb & Dumber. Without any actual knowledge of how the mob works, I sold two ecstasy pills to a cop," he said. Dragoş might not have had any street schooling, but he knew al he needed about drugs—he had tried them all, except those that come in needles. "And when I say 'everything,' I really mean 'everything'—from huffing glue to LSD." Out of the kilograms of substances that Dragoş smoked or snorted or inhaled during his career as a drug connoisseur, he ended up going down for two pills.
Back in the day, the Organized Crime Division of the Romanian police was taking down a massive network of ecstasy dealers—a mammoth case that involved at least 1,000 people. New arrests were being made every day, with hundreds of people ending up in police station basements, while hundreds more went under the radar waiting to get ratted out. Basically, everyone was ratting out everyone in the hopes of earning a couple of years of freedom.
"And so, shit went down and they got to me too," said Dragos. He got arrested and sentenced to do community service in the disassembling warehouse. "This warehouse is the best thing that's happened to me out of everything that the Romanian probation service has to offer." By "probation service," he means that he sometimes has to go to the Antidrug Center in the city of Târgovişte for sobriety tests. "Their offices are in a school for disabled children. I have nothing against the poor things, but every time I go there I instantly get depressed," he said.
Dragoş has in fact quit drugs, except for one. "I've always tested positive for marijuana. Because I still don't want to give up weed, even with all the risks involved." Apparently he's got ADHD.
"This is a cross-head screwdriver. It's called "cross-head" because if we bisect it, we get the cross sign." On the wooden surface of the workbench, the master workman draws me a cross, and I exclaim: "Cross!" His name is Eugen Neacşu and he's the emperor of warehouse dismantling. He gives me an introductory speech filled with platitudes like, "No jumping over the workbench, we walk beside it." It's a mean job, but someone's got to do it. "All sorts of people come here," he said. "I asked a guy to swipe the floor and he asked me how one does that. He had never picked up a broom in his life!"
Eugen Neacşu was an electrician at an airplane factory in Balta Albă. He made modules for military planes until Ceaușescu's regimes fell and someone put a lock on Eugen's assembly line. These days Eugen teaches others how to destroy things instead of making them.
Like the VHS he threw in my arms. I took pity on the old machine and open it carefully as if I'm not supposed to take it apart, but fix it. The guy sitting on my right side noticed my exaggerated care and told me, in a consoling tone, "Leave it, it's just waste. Wa-ste!"
His name is Cătălin. He's 22 and ended up here after being charged with robbery. "I'm innocent!" he said and started reciting his story. "It happened one night. I was drunk. I stopped, please excuse my language, to take a leak on the street." But he wasn't pardoned by a pedestrian, who confronted him about his indecency. Cătălin pulled out a knife and... the guy pulled out a briefcase. "I was pointing the knife at him and he was slamming his briefcase into the knife. He really scared me so I ran away."
His misfortune was that the briefcase aggressor was also a lawyer, who put on his gown and represented himself in court. Apparently, it was there that he got Cătălin indicted for robbery and sentenced to 180 hours of community service."What's this?" I ask Cătălin pointing at a large piece of metal which, to my untrained eye, could have just as well been copper, iron, aluminum, or stainless steel. "Stainless steel," he said.
After working on dismantling the VHS for almost an hour, it seemed like I had got a long way to go. The number-one rule is that a small component always has a smaller component inside, and an even smaller component will inevitably hold a smaller-smaller component. Labor becomes completely unbearable when you unscrew a half-a-finger-sized little shit that contains a bunch of other little shits made of plastic, stainless steel, aluminum, and copper. So you have to open it and separate into piles so copper goes with copper, stainless steel with stainless steel, plastic with plastic, aluminum with aluminum. It felt as if someone gave me a tooth brush and sent me to clean the highway. All in all, this is what working here is about: repenting.
Those who finish their work can actually breath a sigh of relief. Like in the case of Andrei, who put on his coat and is looking at us with a smirk. "Ready!" he said and shrugs just like boxers do before a fight.
The community service system was brought to Romania after a successful experiment in Switzerland, thanks to the Foundation for Promoting Community Sanctions.
"Firstly, community service is the cheapest way to punish a criminal. Imprisonment is an aggression imposed by society on the individual as a result of the individual's aggression towards society. No matter how civilized a prison might be, it leaves a mark on the individual and the cost of his reinstatement into society can be huge," said Alin Păun, executive chief of the foundation, who has established three warehouses of this kind in Bucharest, Timişoara, and Braşov through a Romanian-Swiss grant.
Every year, the foundation's warehouses manage to safely put away a few hundreds of tons of extremely dangerous electronic waste. The work that these convicts do is even more valuable since Romania holds the last place in the European Union when it comes to recycling high-tech junk. Only 1 percent of the total toxic waste produced by Romanians gets recycled—the rest ends up scattered around and from there straight into our livers.
But warehouses have another positive function. For a lot of these convicts working here, having a job is no longer something to be afraid of. "It's the first time they start waking up and working on a fixed schedule," Alin said. "And they tell me with excitement: 'You know what? After I'm done here I could really get a job!'"
Back on the workbench, the VHS spilled its last bolt into the box of bolts and has disappeared into the ash heap of history. Its iron parts sat in the iron place for recycling, stainless steel was with stainless steel, and plastic with plastic.
The difference between that VHS and your laptop are not their components. They both contain iron, stainless steel, aluminum, and copper. The difference is in the way people have put together these elements to create a perfect circuit. All the convicts in the recycling warehouse do is look for their place in our perfect circuit.