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China’s E-Waste City


ISSUE:  Spring 2011
A worker takes a brief break from sorting through stripped circuit boards in Guiyu, China.
A worker takes a brief break from sorting through stripped circuit boards in Guiyu, China.

Officially, the Chinese government bans the importation of electronic waste. The country has even signed the Basel Convention, an international treaty aimed at preventing the developed world from dumping hazardous materials in poorer nations. The trouble is that computers, televisions, DVD players, cell phones, smart phones, and tablet devices are seen as a resource in an economy starved for raw materials. The discarded electronics come by the container-load and are transported in hulking trucks to be dumped in places like Guiyu—a cluster of four coastal villages on the South China Sea.

Guiyu is the largest e-waste site in the world, with an estimated 150,000 workers processing more than one hundred truckloads each day. Locals have dubbed the wasteland where materials arrive—an expanse of more than fifty square kilometers—the “electronic graveyard.” In the surrounding villages, in thousands of improvised shacks, workers cook circuit boards on wood-fired skillets to loosen lead and tin soldering. They pry off microchips and drop them into sulfuric acid baths to extract gold and silver. They burn wiring for the copper inside.

All told, the local government estimates that Guiyu processes 1.5 million tonnes of e-waste each year but nets less than $10 per week for the workers. This low cost drives many recycling operations to export American e-waste—nearly four million tonnes of it each year. Much, inevitably, ends up in toxic processing centers like Guiyu.

The consequences are undeniable. Nearly everyone has some kind of respiratory illness from breathing in dioxin-filled smoke. The disposing of plastic waste and ash residue in the villages’ open canals and streams has rendered the local water unsafe. Chromium, tin, and other heavy metals permeate the soil. Recent studies indicate that children in Guiyu have some of the highest lead levels in the world. In 2005, Zheng Songming, head of the local government, banned cooking components and soaking them in acid, but the practice continues—and the volume of e-waste worldwide only grows.

A worker melts the solder from a circuit board in order to harvest its microchips.
A worker melts the solder from a circuit board in order to harvest its microchips.
A woman unloads a cart stacked high with empty computer keyboard casings.
A woman unloads a cart stacked high with empty computer keyboard casings. Later, other workers will shred the discarded plastic bodies to melt and reuse.
Young women sort computer chips into plastic baskets in a small concrete and corrugated steel shack.
Young women sort computer chips into plastic baskets in a small concrete and corrugated steel shack. This kind of recycling can only be done by hand.
A young girl disassembles computer CD drives.
A young girl disassembles computer CD drives. Early exposure to heavy metals produces a disproportionate rate of infant mortality and unusually low IQs among Guiyu’s children.
Fans provide minimal ventilation for cramped workshops where the air fills with dioxins from burning plastic, fumes from melting solder, and the smoke of charcoal fires.
Fans provide minimal ventilation for cramped workshops where the air fills with dioxins from burning plastic, fumes from melting solder, and the smoke of charcoal fires.

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