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China’s toxic junkyard

April 9, 2006
Electronic-waste-in-ChinaFort Worth Star-Telegram
Tim Johnson

When discarded computers vanish from desktops around the world, they often end up in Guiyu, which may be the electronic-waste capital of the globe. The city is a sprawling computer slaughterhouse. Instead of offal and blood, its runoff includes toxic metals and acids. Some 60,000 laborers toil here at primitive e-waste recycling — if it can be called that — even as the work imperils their health.

Computer carcasses line the streets, awaiting dismemberment. Circuit boards and hard drives lie in huge mounds. At thousands of workshops, laborers shred and grind plastic casings into particles, snip cables and pry chips from circuit boards. Workers pass the boards through red-hot kilns or acid baths to dissolve lead, silver and other metals from the digital detritus. The acrid smell of burning solder and melting plastic fills the air.

What occurs is more akin to e-waste scavenging. Though China bans imports of electronic waste, its factories clamor for raw materials — even those yanked from the guts of discarded computers — and ill-informed workers seek out computer-recycling jobs. So the ban is ignored, and the waste comes in torrents. Under the guise of “recycling,” U.S. e-waste brokers ship discarded computers and dump an environmental problem on China.

In the United States, consumers, manufacturers and retailers are only beginning to pay attention to the cost of safely ending the lives of electronics. By next year, obsolete computers amassed in the United States will number 500 million, according to the U.S. National Safety Council.

“People just don’t know what to do with them,” said Jim Puckett, the coordinator of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based group that advises consumers about sustainable methods to dispose of e-waste.

Hewlett-Packard of Palo Alto, Calif., committed this year to eliminate a range of hazardous chemicals from its products and has helped lobby for state laws requiring manufacturers to take back old equipment.

Still, a lot of e-waste from the United States continues to seep into China and West Africa, where corruption is large and smuggling rampant. The U.S. government doesn’t ban, or even monitor, e-waste exports. What’s more, 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.

Guiyu (pronounced GWAY-yoo), a few hours’ drive northeast of Hong Kong, is by far China’s biggest e-waste scrap heap. The city comprises 21 villages with 5,500 family workshops handling e-waste. According to the local government Web site, city businesses process 1.5 million tons of e-waste a year, pulling in $75 million in revenue. As much as 80 percent of it comes from overseas.

City officials are proud of the e-waste industry but sensitive about its reputation as a dirty business that feeds off smuggled waste and abuses labor rights. Journalists who probe quickly find themselves detained by local thugs or police officers, and their digital photographs or video footage erased. One recent visitor was stopped within two hours of arriving and ordered to leave.

“They don’t want the media . . . to write articles about the negative aspect of the Guiyu area,” Wu said. “[They think] maybe the central government will punish them.”

Local bosses pay little regard to workers’ health or to regulations that prohibit dumping acid baths into rivers and venting toxic fumes. In one district of Guiyu, a migrant worker stood amid piles of capacitors and circuit boards as fellow workers with pliers tore off soldered metal parts and burned electronic components over braziers to determine their content.

“If you burn it, you can tell what kind of plastic it is,” said the man, who gave only his surname, Wang. “They smell different. There are many kinds of plastic, probably 60 or 70 types.”

An average computer yields only $1.50 to $2 worth of commodities such as shredded plastic, copper and aluminum, according to a report in November by the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog arm of Congress.

E-waste recyclers in the United States can’t cover their costs with such low yields, especially while respecting environmental regulations. So they charge an average of 50 cents a pound for taking in old computers, about $20 to $28 per unit. At that price, experts say, recycling can be done safely and profitably. But some U.S. brokers then ship the e-waste abroad for greater profits.

Knight Ridder special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this article.

Questions and answers

Q. Why should I be concerned about what happens to my old computer once I erase my personal information?

A. Computers and other electronics contain numerous hazardous materials in the circuitry, monitors and plastic casings.

Monitors: Between 4 and 8 pounds of lead, which can be toxic if ingested. When buried in a landfill, it can leach into groundwater.

Electronics systems and circuit boards: Small amounts of tin, copper, gold, palladium and antimony. Trace amounts of beryllium, mercury and cadmium, all heavy metals and harmful — sometimes carcinogenic — if ingested. Plastic housings: Presence of flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, a toxic substance that builds up over time in human bodies.

Q. What is the federal government doing about exports of e-waste?

A. Nothing. The United States is the only major nation that hasn’t ratified the 1994 Basel Convention, which bans exports of hazardous electronic waste. Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency has no certification process for electronic-waste recyclers. Any company can claim that it “recycles” e-waste, when all it does is export it.

Q. Where can I get information about responsible e-waste recycling in my area?

A. Many states have recyclers who’ve signed pledges not to export and dump old computers. Here are Web sites to show where they’re available:

Computer Take Back Campaign,
Basel Action Network,


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