Ever wonder where those old used computers end up? How about all those old CRT monitors, cell phones, keyboards, and PDAs? We’re told when we drop off our old electronics for recycling that they will be properly disposed of; in some cases we pay recyclers to take our old computer parts, just to make sure we dispose of them the correct way. It is easy to wipe our hands of these discarded items, feeling we’ve done our part – but have we? What we don’t know is what the “recyclers” do with these parts and where the discarded items end up. You never hear about electronic waste sites, but perhaps it is time we start paying more attention…
Guiyu, China is often referred to as the “e-waste capital of the world.” The city employs over 150,000 e-waste workers that toil through 16-hour days dis-assembling old computers and recapturing whatever metals and parts they can re-use or sell. This is far from an organized operation, however. Rather than having computers neatly stacked on palettes in storage units waiting to be recycled, computer carcasses are strewn about the streets and river banks. Huge tangles of wires and cables lay on street corners. Workers, whom will usually specialize in dis-assembling specific parts, will pull parts from the various scattered piles of parts about town and begin their work right on the street. (click thumbnails to enlarge)
There are thousands of individual workshops where laborers snip cables, pry chips from circuit boards, grind plastic computer cases into particles, and dip circuit boards in acid baths to dissolve the lead, cadmium, and other toxic metals. Thousands more work to strip insulation from all wiring in an attempt to salvage tiny amounts of copper wire. The air reeks of burning plastic and noxious metals, but the workers have learned to live with the conditions.
What is going on in Guiyu isn’t exactly legal. A 60 minutes crew did a story on an American recycler based in Denver, CO, and discovered that the poor handling of used computer parts starts here, with the companies that take your used parts under the guise of “recycling.” This particular recycler was not shy to brag about itself on its green principles and often publicly chastised competitors for selling parts to the lowest bidder overseas and not following proper recycling procedures. Despite these claims, the 60 minutes crew followed a shipping container full of used CRT monitors from this recycler in Denver, CO directly to China where it was intended to continue on to Guiyu for illegal tear-down.
What the “recyclers” around the world are doing is charging the public a fee for the recycling service and then turning around and doubling their money by selling the parts to the Chinese. Legality and morality hurdles aside, it’s a great business model – you have virtually no costs, your customers pay you to take the merchandise, and you can turn around and sell the merchandise to another party. You then get tax breaks from the Federal government due to your green “recycling” operations.
The Chinese take all of the used parts and strip away all the items with no value – usually anything that isn’t metal – in an effort to retrieve valuable resources to sell for scrap. As some environmental activists have pointed out: “This isn’t recycling; it’s scavenging.”
China officially bans the import of electronic waste, but due to the huge source of revenue generation for so many small towns in China, most authorities look the other way. Compounding the issue is a shortage of raw materials for major industry in China; factories are clamoring for the materials produced from this scavenging. Further complicating attempts at reform, Guiyu’s entire economy is centered around this industry and its livelihood depends on it. A shutting down of operations would leave 150,000 people unemployed, and regulation of the industry would remove any profit margins for the companies and have the same effect.
Chinese officials that acknowledge the problem are quick to point to the United States and other industrialized countries as being the primary source of the problem. “The biggest responsibility lies in the developed countries that export e-waste” claims one professor in China. While culpability to some extent certainly lies at the feet of U.S. exporters, officials in China aren’t free from blame either. Taxation from e-waste recycling produces nearly 90 percent of the revenue of the regional Chinese government, making officials rather reluctant to enforce or regulate.
Cost and Revenue
Not helping the problem is the increased cost to properly recycle used parts. Workers in Guiyu will recover about $1.50 to $2 worth of valuable commodities from an average computer; e-waste recyclers in the United States can’t cover their costs with such low yields. This makes it easy to tempt recyclers to instead sell the parts to China for greater profits. Fixing the process is seen as very difficult since it is often a “lowest bidder” system. A cash-strapped public school system, for instance, isn’t going to pay a premium to recycle its old computers. More likely they will find the lowest bidder for the recycling, and the lowest bidders are the ones who export to China.
It is estimated that the various city businesses in Guiyu earn over $75 million a year from processing 1.5 million tons of e-waste. Supply lines won’t dry up anytime soon, either. The United States alone throws away about 130,000 computers every day, and 100 million cellular phones are thrown out annually. This is just the export from one industrialized country.
Far From Safe
The environmental and health effects of this activity are extremely damaging. The air is not safe to breathe, the water not safe to drink. Lead and other poisonous metals course through the veins of the residents. Greenpeace sent crews to Guiyu to measure ground samples and test the water supply. Over 10 heavy (and some poisonous) metals were found, such as lead, mercury, tin, aluminum, and cadmium . Drinking water has to be trucked in as the local river and underground water table are poisonous. Guiyu has the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world; pregnancies are six times more likely to end in miscarriage and seven out of ten children are born with 50% higher levels of lead in their blood than children born elsewhere.
Workers will burn circuit boards and components over coal fires to melt the lead solder and separate the metals; this releases noxious gasses into the air and toxic materials into the ground. Plastic cases of computers, phones, and PDAs are melted – producing poly-chlorinated dioxins in the process – and sold as raw materials for re-use. One worker relates “if you burn it, you can tell what kind of plastic it is. They smell different. There are many kinds of plastics, probably 60 or 70 types.”
The residents are only partially aware of the significant negative health effects. They understand that conditions aren’t the best, but the higher than average wage keeps them working in Guiyu. Dis-assemblers in Guiyu earn about $8 a day – almost five times what many earned as peasant farmers before. With a lack of major industry in the area, even more were previously unemployed so destitution drives many to the hazardous work. In fact, many Chinese actually move to Guiyu in hopes of earning the attractive wages. Activists have lamented that these people must choose between poverty and poison – something no human should have to do.
88% of workers suffer from neurological, respiratory, or digestive abnormalities. A similar number also suffer from some form of skin disease. Workers use their bare hands for dis-assembly of parts, and sweep excess printer toner from the streets into the river.
Guiyu is listed as the world’s second most polluted spot; Lake Karachay is the first.
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