A Chinese Town's Get-Rich Scheme: E-trash to Cash

A visit to a provincial town opens a window on an unsavory business

4 min read

Here in Guiyu, in China's southeastern Guandong province, it's not difficult to find the back-street shacks where thousands of tons of old motherboards, printers, and monitors from the United States end up each year. All you have to do is follow the slow-moving trucks that look as if they're about to tip over from their brimming loads of electronic trash [see photos, " Electronic Rag Picking" and " Trucking"].

Once the trucks turn off Guiyu's main road, they drive down unpaved paths that separate half-completed cement and brick structures. The buildings are being hastily built to provide sorting space for the town's fast-growing industry for recycling electronic trash. Just past the main roads, the trucks unload huge garbage bags full of computer parts, leaving laborers, a half dozen working under one roof, to sort through and break apart the used wares for their valuable components.

Behind a barricaded storefront, two women work with pliers to pry computer chips, loosened by the heat of coal fires, off motherboards. They work behind a barricade to prevent journalists and the occasional official from seeing what they're doing. They wear gloves but no other protective material. For their nine-hour workdays, seven days a week, they make less than US $100 per month. A headache-inducing smell, worse than that of burnt hair, hangs in the air.

The Electronic Trash that most Americans deposit at centers for recycling toxic materials often ends up polluting towns in developing countries, including India and Vietnam. But it is China, experts say, that has become the favored destination for the world's discarded computers and peripherals and the main source of used computer parts. "The residues--lead, mercury, and other toxic materials--all end up in China," says James Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network, an environmental watchdog group in Seattle.

In the past decade, the United States has slowly deregulated the recycling industry to the point that it currently has no laws forbidding the export of electronic waste, Puckett says. The United States is the only advanced industrial country that has not signed the 1989 Basel Convention, which banned the export of electronic and other hazardous waste. And efforts by U.S. industry groups to adopt a framework for self-regulation of recycling are stalled [see "Nationwide Deal on Electronic Waste in Trouble," by Tekla S. Perry].

In 2002, China banned the import of many used electronic items meant for the reclaimers, ranging from computers to cellphones and even rice cookers. Implementing the ban, however, has been difficult, particularly because of China's extensive coastline. In addition, the shipments have created jobs for the underclass, says Puckett.

About 20 million U.S. computers were disposed of in 1998, and that number will rise to 60 million in 2005, says Tim Townsend, an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. In laboratory tests for a study completed in March, Townsend showed that electronics, including computer mice and cellphones, released enough lead during disassembly to be classified as hazardous waste under regulations of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in Washington, D.C. But EPA rules, according to an agency spokesperson, allow U.S. exporters to ship hazardous waste materials to foreign countries, provided that both parties agree to the transaction [see box, "What You Can Do"].

China'S Import of electronic trash has given birth to towns whose economies are completely dependent on the trade. Environmental groups charge that unscrupulous Taiwanese businessmen, who are often now prevented from dumping on their own island because of tightened environmental laws, connect e-trash collection centers in the United States with dumping grounds like Guiyu. Puckett says that to get the shipments past Chinese customs, bribes for officials are often necessary, sometimes in the form of a $100 bill taped to the back of a computer.

Migrants from poorer interior provinces like Sichuan, Anhui, and Henan--100 000 of them, Greenpeace'soffice in Guangzhou estimates--have flocked to Guiyu to mine chips. As China's own electronics industry grows, manufacturers from around the country come to Guiyu to buy recycled computer chips, which sell for the equivalent of about40 U.S. cents apiece, regardless of function, to install in their products.

The trade might be easier to stamp out if it weren't actually improving the town's economy. Signs of prosperity can be seen in the white-tiled buildings lining the dusty streets. In the center of town, several private kindergartens and a gleaming new public high school have opened. Stores sell new motorcycles, which are quickly replacing bicycles as the favored mode of transportation. "If the electronic waste business is good, so is ours," says a restaurant owner surnamed Chong. But he also notes that the booming industry has brought other urban problems, including petty theft and opium use among the younger generation.

Orange groves that were once the main source of income for the town of 200 000 have been cut down to make room for new buildings that advertise used chips from companies like Motorola, AT and T, and Lucent. In what used to be a vegetable market near a now heavily polluted, stagnant river, workers sort computer chips and package them in small plastic bags.

The work involves monotonous, repetitive, and dangerous tasks. In addition to the threat from toxic fumes, laborers have to be careful not to cut themselves on shattered pieces of plastic and glass from computer motherboards and terminals, which fly through the air when pried apart. Signs warn employees that a full day's pay will be docked if they miss just a half-day of work. Ironically, signs on the main streets of Guiyu carry propaganda slogans saying: "Protecting the environment is the equivalent of protecting your life."

A man in his early twenties surnamed Dai says he arrived in Guiyu nine months ago from a town several hundred miles north because he had heard from others that the work was plentiful and lucrative. But now, disappointed by the realities he has found, he plans to return to his hometown in Anhui province unless things improve. "I know that this brings bad health effects," says Dai, wearing a red shirt streaked with ink stains. "It's so dirty it has to be bad for your health."

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