Electronic waste in Guiyu
Guiyu, in Guangdong Province, China, is made up of four small villages which are all in bad condition. It is the location of what may be the largest electronic waste (e-waste) site in the world. In 2005 there were 60,000 e-waste workers in Guiyu who processed the more than 100 truckloads that were transported to the 52 square kilometre area every day. Guiyu is nicknamed the "electronic graveyard".
Many of the primitive recycling operations in Guiyu are toxic and dangerous to workers' health with 80% of children suffering from lead poisoning. Above-average miscarriage rates are also reported in the region. Workers use their bare hands to crack open electronics to strip away any parts that can be reused—including chips and valuable metals, such as gold, silver, etc. Workers also "cook" circuit boards to remove chips and solders, burn wires and other plastics to liberate metals such as copper; use highly corrosive and dangerous acid baths along the riverbanks to extract gold from the microchips; and sweep printer toner out of cartridges. Children are exposed to the dioxin-laden ash as the smoke billows around Guiyu, and finally settles on the area. The soil has been saturated with lead, chromium, tin, and other heavy metals. Discarded electronics lie in pools of toxins that leach into the groundwater, making the water undrinkable to the extent that water must be trucked in from elsewhere. Lead levels in the river sediment are double European safety levels, according to the Basel Action Network. Lead in the blood of Guiyu's children is 54% higher on average than that of children in the nearby town of Chendian. Piles of ash and plastic waste sit on the ground beside rice paddies and dikes holding in the Lianjiang river.
A recent study of the area evaluated the extent of heavy metal contamination from the site. Using dust samples, scientists analysed mean heavy metal concentrations in a Guiyu workshop and found that lead and copper were 371 and 115 times higher, respectively, compared to areas located 30 kilometres away. The same study revealed that sediment from the nearby Lianjiang River was found to be contaminated by polychlorinated byphenyls at a level three times greater than the guideline amount.
In the interest of business, e-waste follows the path of lowest costs and lowest standards.
The economic incentives created by strict domestic regulation, non-existent or unenforced regulations in developing countries, and the ease of free trade brought about by globalization, led recyclers to export e-waste. The value of parts in discarded electronics provides an incentive for poverty-stricken citizens to migrate to Guiyu from other provinces to work in processing it. The average worker, adult or child, makes barely $1.50/day (or 17 cents/hour). The average workday is sixteen hours. This $1.50 is made by recovering the valuable metals and parts that are within the piles of discarded electronics. Even this relatively tiny profit is enough motivation for workers to risk their health.
Once a rice village, the pollution has made Guiyu unable to produce crops for food and the water of the river is undrinkable.
Guiyu as an e-waste hub was first documented fully in December 2001 by the Basel Action Network, a non-profit organization which combats the practice of toxic waste export to developing countries in their report and documentary film entitled Exporting Harm. The health and environmental issues exposed by this report and subsequent scientific studies have greatly concerned international organisations such as the Basel Action Network and later Greenpeace and the United Nations Environment Programme and the Basel Convention. Media documentation of Guiyu is tightly regulated by the Chinese government, for fear of exposure or legal action. For example, a November 2008 news story by 60 Minutes, a popular US TV news program, documented the illegal shipments of electronic waste from recyclers in the US to Guiyu. While taping part of the story on-site at an illegal recycling dump in Guiyu, representatives of the Chinese recyclers attempted without success to confiscate the footage from the 60 Minutes TV crew. Greenpeace has protested the environmental impacts of e-waste recycling in Guiyu using different methods to raise awareness such as building a statue using e-waste collected from a site in Guiyu, or delivering a truckload of e-waste dumped in Guiyu back to Hewlett Packard headquarters. Greenpeace has been lobbying large consumer electronics companies to stop using toxic substances in their products, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
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Since 2007, conditions in Guiyu have changed little despite the efforts of the central government to crack down and enforce the long-standing e-waste import ban. Recent studies have revealed some of the highest levels of dioxin ever recorded. However, because of the work of activist groups and increasing awareness of the situation, there is hope for the site to be improved. "It can be done. Look at what happened with lead acid batteries. We discovered they were hazardous, new legislation enforced new ways of dealing with the batteries which led to an infrastructure being created. The key was making it easy for people and companies to participate. It took years to build. E-waste is going the same route. But attitudes have changed and we will get there," Mr. Houghton says. Zheng Songming, head of the Guiyu Township government has published a decree to ban burning electronics in fires and soaking them in sulfuric acid, and promises supervision and fines for violations. Over 800 coal-burning furnaces have been destroyed because of this ordinance, and most notably, air quality has returned to Level II, now technically acceptable for habitation.
In previous years, Guiyu was at the receiving end of some 1.5 million tons of used e-waste. However, in recent years, the trashed electronics are shifting towards unused and out of warranty electronics. This is a result of the rapid advancement of technology in the past decade. As companies churn out new products, old ones are shelved and, once the warranty expires, are disposed of.
While the U.S. and Europe have contributed to the e-waste accumulation, in recent years, figures have shown that Asia, particularly China, have been the main source of e-waste imports to Guiyu. As nonprofit organizations like Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network, an American toxic trade watchdog organization, spread awareness of the detrimental effects of improper e-waste disposal, recycling regulations and reforms have tightened in the U.S. and Europe. In 2012, the European Parliament passed a new reform, in an effort to curb the dumping of e-waste in landfill sites. To achieve this, the European Union set a requirement for participating states to collect 45 tons of e-waste for every 100 tons of electronic products sold. The reform also requires e-waste exporters to provide proper documentation for electronics being shipped for repair or reuse as a measure to prevent illegal mass shipments of e-waste to developing countries. In this way, the movement of electronics between developed and developing countries can be monitored.
Furthermore, reports show that workers who collect and scavenge for scraps in these e-waste landfills state that U.S. and European products are increasingly hard to come by. They also state that these products are better designed to be taken apart and resold in basic components. On the other hand, electronics made in Asia often do not meet environmental and health safety regulations, posing a physical threat to workers who spend their days in these landfills.
While many large corporations emphasize their responsibility and contribution to protecting the environment, much of the unused e-waste that ends up in Guiyu is a result of shipments from e-waste traders. These illegal shipments are often imported through Hong Kong, before they are sent to Guiyu. Another aspect of this problem is the fact that many of these unused e-waste items consist of electronic components, rather than actual products. Upon selling these components to clients, companies state that they are released from responsibility - that it is up to the client to properly dispose of the electronics. For this reason, companies have trouble regulating the disposal of their electronics. Other than implementing a trade-in system, where customers can send in their old electronics to the original manufacturer, the rest of the company's products are difficult to keep track of.
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