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Where Do All The Dead Computers Go?

Updated on March 2, 2012
In Guiyu, China, the water is contaminated from the all the "recycling" done in that area.  The surroundings here are squalid at best; and, apocolyptic for the main part.
In Guiyu, China, the water is contaminated from the all the "recycling" done in that area. The surroundings here are squalid at best; and, apocolyptic for the main part. | Source

The town looks like one of those extended garbage heaps you see in World Vision ads on television. The ones where entire families - even the small children - go every day to scavenge anything they can "recycle" and sell for a few pennies. The children don't go to school - they can't afford it. The family can't always afford to eat; so, school is out of the question.

The smoke from the always-smoldering dump sites pollute the air they breathe and exact a heavy toll on their frail, undernourished bodies. The lucky ones have rags or perhaps a piece of cardboard they can tie to their feet to protect them from the heat and the dangers in the dump. The unlucky ones do the best they can.

In Guiyu, China things are similar. However, in this case, the entire village is involved the "recycling" of electronics. Those who settle and work in Guiyu are the truly desperate and destitute. Persons who are so utterly desperate for money or too ill-formed about the dangers to let the health risks stop them from working.

The air is heavy, acrid and laden with carcinogenic particles from the squat gas burners that sit outside homes and are used to melt the plastic coating off hangers or other coated items to recover the copper inside. Computer motherboards are cooked for their gold content adding their toxic ingredients to the witches’ brew. Plastic casings are shredded; open fires, acid baths and broilers are used to recover the gold, silver, copper and other valuable rare earth metals while the thickener for this concoction is provided by migrant workers in filthy clothes who smash picture tubes by hand (no gloves – too expensive) to recover glass and electronic parts. They can add as much as 6.5 pounds of lead dust per person per day into the air. Say good-bye to pink, healthy lungs, say hello to life in a computer graveyard.

To read or download Greenpeace report on the pollution levels in Guiyu, please click here.

A Very Quick Peek Around Guiyu with 60 Minutes has a very compelling photo slideshow detailing some of the hardships endured by those who are forced to live and work in this hell hole.

What occurs in these recycling centres is more closely related to e-waste scavenging than environmentally-friendly recycling. All it takes is a visit to the town of Guiyu to realize the air, water and land is hopelessly polluted. No expensive equipment is needed to determine this; the ability to see and smell is all that is required.

While China bans imports of electronic waste, the US and other North American e-waste brokers ship broken computers, cell phones and other electronics to China under the guise of "recycling" or "donations". The e-waste is brokered to China, India and some African countries for "recycling" because these countries will pay for this waste; and, it saves the exporting companies the substantial cost of recycling here at home.

The cost to recycle old electronics in an environmentally-friendly manner in the US, Europe and other North American countries is quite expensive; so, cash-strapped institutions end up selling their old equipment to e-waste brokers rather than having them recycled at home. They have received some money for these items and they are going to be, what's the problem.

The problem is that all that waste ends up in places like Guiyu. It's one of the worst-kept secrets there is. Another example of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing or so they claim. **wink, wink, nudge, nudge**

Chinese factories are so desperate for raw materials for their own use that they will use anything that comes across their paths. Even the guts of discarded computers are acceptable fodder for the electronics machine; and, well-intentioned; but, ill-informed workers seek out computer-recycling jobs. So the ban is ignored, and the waste comes in torrents.

March 16, 2006: Workers unload electronic waste from trucks as seen from a hidden position inside of a vehicle in Guiyu, China.
March 16, 2006: Workers unload electronic waste from trucks as seen from a hidden position inside of a vehicle in Guiyu, China.

As the picture shows, since imported e-waste is technically banned in China, the trucks distributing it to the various sites just show up, quickly unload the dead electronics right onto the street; and, drive away. The workers come, pick through the stuff that has been dumped and take away the pieces they either “specialize” in or think will yield the most copper, gold and other saleable materials. It is estimated that approximately 70 percent of the 20-50 million tons of electronic waste produced globally each year is dumped in China. India and the poorer African nations are the lucky recipients of the rest.

"I've seen a lot of dirty operations in Third World countries; but, what was shocking was seeing all this post-consumer waste," said Jim Puckett of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network (after a visit to Guiyu). "This is all stuff from you and me."

One year ago, the environmental group Greenpeace sampled dust, soil, river sediment and groundwater in Guiyu and found escalating levels of toxic heavy metals and organic contaminants. They found “over 10 poisonous metals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium” reported Lai Yun, a campaigner for the Greenpeace.

“When the workers shatter the circuit boards into powder, they rinse it away with water,” said Wu, the environmental activist on the trip. "And the water goes into the rivers. They also use acid baths to dissolve metals on the boards. The acid is released into the rivers," Wu continued.

Consequently, the ground water is so polluted that drinking water has to be trucked in from a town 18 miles away, Greenpeace reported. One river sample in the area had 190 times the pollution levels allowed under World Health Organization guidelines.

Water for the town is trucked in; but, that seems to be the only concession being made in showing concern for the workers’ health. Fish destined for the workers’ dinner plates are raised in local contaminated ponds which can’t help but contaminate the fish raised in them. **And how will you be having your toxic waste today; solid, liquid or gas?** Piles of ash and plastic waste sit heaped haphazardly beside rice paddies and dikes that hold back the Lianjiang River. Accidents waiting to happen.

Chemicals, including mercury, fluorine, barium, chromium, and cobalt, that either leach from the waste or are used in processing, are blamed for skin rashes and respiratory problems.

Contamination can take decades to dissipate, experts say, and long-term health effects can include kidney and nervous system damage, weakening of the immune system and cancer.

"Of course, recycling is more environmentally sound," said Wu Song, a former local university student who has studied the area. "But I wouldn't really call what's happening here recycling."

Tea made with imported water and a dark, murky tea made with polluted local water. The local water makes the tea turn black, probably due to the horrific groundwater pollution from Guiyu's e-waste yards.
Tea made with imported water and a dark, murky tea made with polluted local water. The local water makes the tea turn black, probably due to the horrific groundwater pollution from Guiyu's e-waste yards. | Source

AND...if all this isn't a reason for responsible electronics recycling - think about this. Unless you are a techie, you probably can't completely erase your hard drive. The e-waste brokers sure don't. They are not about to spend time, energy and money wiping your hard drive clean when it gains them absolutely nothing.

So, where does the hard drive go? It goes (complete with all the precious personal information you ever had stored in there) with the computer to either China, India or some African country to be recycled. Ever wonder why so many identity thefts seem to occur from overseas? Hard drives fetch big money from people who know how to extract all that lovely information and use it to their advantage.

The Basel Convention - Read and Weep

There is a very impressive sounding international treaty in place (?) that is always pointed to as the “be all and end all” when policy makers are taken to task about this obvious disregard for human and environmental health.

This 1989 treaty is the Basel Convention (Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal). This treaty was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations; and, specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to lesser- developed countries (LDCs). Makes us seem all caring and concerned, doesn't it? For some reason, the treaty does not address the movement of radioactive waste. The Convention was also intended to minimize the amount as well as the toxicity of wastes generated, to ensure their environmentally-sound management as closely as possible to the source of generation. (Isn’t there somewhere closer to the US that could handle these wastes other than China, India and Africa?) There was also supposed to be a commitment to assist the lesser-developed countries in environmentally-sound management of the hazardous and other wastes they generate (and dumping our waste on them, helps them how?)

The Basel Convention sounds good – on paper – and; that’s exactly where it remains: on paper. The United States has not ratified it; so, it remains virtually useless - at least on our end.

This doen't seem to matter much since the U.S. government doesn't ban or even monitor e-waste exports. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency has no certification process for electronic-waste recyclers. Any company can claim it recycles waste (even if all it does is export it) and face no inspection, no forced compliance to the rules.

Imports slip into China despite a Chinese ban and Beijing's ratification of the Basel Convention due to fancy legal mumbo jumbo. China does allow the import of plastic waste and scrap metal which many recyclers use as an excuse to send old electronics there.

And though the U.S increasingly requires that electronics be sent to collection and recycling centers, this does not necessarily mean that will be recycled in an environmentally-safe manner. Even from these centers, American firms can and do send the e-waste legally abroad because Congress still hasn’t ratified the Basel Convention (remember?).

And, time may be running out.


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