FOCUS // CHINA – The Dark Side of Recycling: China’s E-Waste
“The Choice Between Poverty and Poison”
Parts of China are awash in electronic waste, or “e-waste”; a rising tide of circuit boards, glass monitors and other bits and bobs of computers that we don’t want anymore due to their having become passé and no longer suited to our hyper-modern, technology and consumer-driven lifestyles. Chinese towns, such as the now infamous Guiyu in the south of the country, are dedicated e-waste recycling centers, dominated, darkened and scarred by the toxic trash industry. In very poor and basic conditions, metals such as lead, copper and gold are extracted from recycled e-waste via unsafe, virtually medieval methods, which release noxious chemicals into the atmosphere. Workers bodies are also directly exposed via contact with their skin and by breathing the poisonous vapors, smoke and fumes into their poorly protected lungs when “re-smelting” and otherwise working with the electronic refuse.
According to the documentary short about Guiyu, ‘Electronic Trash Village – China’ by independent producers Journeyman Pictures, a UN Report states that 70% of the world’s electronic waste is sent to China and the way this waste is processed and recycled is causing untold amounts of pollution, contamination of water and soil, and poisoning those who work in this industry. These workers are paid what would seem to most of us to be laughably low wages. For them, however, the money is relatively good and can mean a difference between poverty and a level of prosperity that they have never before experienced. Unfortunately it can also mean, as stated in a similar report by CBS Television’s investigative journalism program 60 Minutes, “a choice between poverty and poison.” Many choose the latter, at least for as long as they can stand it.
China, for its own part, has started to regulate the recycling industry and environmental pollution, but pressure from international businesses and the country’s mad dash towards economic and industrial superpower status makes this regulation difficult.
From the supply side end of the spectrum, the ‘Trash Village’ documentary states that refuse export has been legalized in the United States, the largest exporter of trash. Of course, things aren’t that simple. Other sources, while not refuting this claim, show that the U.S. imports even more waste than it exports, including toxic waste from factories in Mexico. Furthermore, some of the problem isn’t what the law allows or prohibits, but that many companies are exporting and importing e-waste illegally, something that is both profitable and surprisingly easy for them to do.
Watch the full 60 Minutes report, including footage and interviews with the people of Guiyu – ‘The Electronic Wasteland’ and read ‘Following the Trail of Toxic E-Waste: 60 Minutes Follows America’s Toxic Electronic Waste As It Is Illegally Shipped To Become China’s Dirty Secret’
Neither is this just an international problem. In America, the state of California (known for being the country’s most environmentally progressive state) exports huge amounts of e-waste. But what’s more is that California recycling firms ship an abundance of toxic computer waste to the neighboring state of Arizona, according to a CBS Television report from April 24, 2009.
Fortunately some companies – in the interest of Ecology, human welfare and of course corporate identity – are ensuring that their waste disposal practices are more ethical than the law requires of them. Dell Computers for one has recently formally banned the export of its own e-waste to developing countries, citing environmental and worker-safety concerns. Dell hopes that by publicly denouncing this kind of behavior, it might influence other corporations to follow suit, despite what arguably ineffectual and inadequate laws may require.
But this may not fundamentally even be a problem of where waste is shipped and how it is processed, but rather a deeper question about waste production. As China makes more money via e-waste recycling (among other industries), its population’s standard of living goes up, inevitably creating a growing demand for electronic products of their own, and so the problem of e-waste spirals. Production of computers, iPods and similar gadgets has also been moving into China and so the journey of e-waste becomes more circular, with pollution from both production and recycling (not to mention shipping) increasingly coming from the same place. Meanwhile Americans and Europeans pat themselves on the back for throwing a 2 year old flat screen monitor packed with nitrogen trifluoride (a greenhouse gas said to have 17,000 times the climate impact of CO₂) or an old analog TV set full of lead into a local green-colored recycling bin, ultimately destined for China or other developing countries. It seems, yet again, that a little more concentration on Reduce and Reuse needs to be stressed in the holy environmentalist trinity of the three ‘R’s, as Recycle isn’t quite the righteous saint we once thought it was. In fact, recycling may indeed be the devil in disguise and (to perhaps over-milk the metaphor) China is dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight. And make no mistake; it could be largely China who ends up having to pay the ferryman at the end of this dangerous journey across its own – poisoned – River Styx.
By Graham Land
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Time Magazine Photo Essay: China’s Electronic Waste Village
Electronics Take Back Coalition
Swiss e-waste guide
Lead image source: istockphoto.com