Nowhere is the environmental impact of e-waste as apparent as in Guiyu, Guangdong province. Here the water is black and acidic, children have lead poisoning and the fumes of chemicals hang heavy in the air.
A small Chinese child sitting among cables and e-waste, Guiyu
The largest e-waste disposal site in China and quite possibly the world, Guiyu receives shipments of toxic e-waste, both from domestic sources and from other countries via Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Nanhai.
But Guiyu’s soil, water, air and people are paying a high price. In small workshops and in the open countryside, thousands of men, women and children are taking apart the toys and equipment of the developed world – old computers, monitors, printers, DVD players, photocopying machines, telephones and phone chargers, music speakers, car batteries and microwave ovens.
By hand, the workers painstakingly reduce every piece of equipment to its smallest components. These are then farmed off to 'specialists', workers dedicated to stripping wires for the copper they contain or melting the lead solder from circuit boards.
A migrant worker strips down wires by hand in Guiyu
They use primitive methods that leave them exposed to environmental hazards. For example, circuit boards and other computer parts are burned, individually, over open fires to extract metals. This smelting process releases large amounts of toxic gases into the air.
Plastics are graded by quality and other parts are burned to separate plastic from scrap metal. After this thorough dismembering, any remaining combustibles are left to burn in open fires, filling the air with the acrid stench of plastic, rubber and paint.
A worker uses a lighter to check plastics as it is sorted in a scrapyard full of e-waste, Guiyu.
Environmental and Health Costs
The workers at Guiyu are impoverished migrant labourers and their children. They live and work in the same dirty conditions, contaminated by heavy metals and toxic pollution. The groundwater in Guiyu is undrinkable.
Streams are black and pungent and choked with industrial waste. Kevin Brigden, from the Greenpeace Research Laboratories, tested streams and found acid baths leaching into them. The water was so acidic as to be powerful enough to disintegrate a penny after a few hours, says Brigden.
A woman washes clothing in a polluted river in Guiyu
For the migrants, this is as close as they'll come to bridging the digital divide. Xiao Li has never sat at a computer, logged on to the internet, used a printer or a photocopier but he has spent the last six years processing high tech equipment from around the world. He makes a few US dollars per day melting lead solder off circuit boards and says that life is better here than in his remote farming village in the mountains of Sichuan.
He is probably wrong. Only limited investigations have been carried out on the health effects of Guiyu's poisoned environment, but those that have paint an alarming picture. One of them was carried out by Professor Huo Xia (full study), of the Shantou University Medical College, an hour and a half's drive from Guiyu.
She tested 165 Guiyu children for concentrations of lead in their blood. Eighty two percent of the kids had blood/lead levels of over 100, which is considered unsafe by international health experts. The average reading for the group was 149.
High levels of lead in young children can impact IQ and the development of the central nervous system. The highest concentrations of lead were found in the children of parents whose workshop dealt with circuit boards.
A separate report by the Shantou Medical University Hospital in November 2003 found a high incidence of skin damage, headaches, vertigo, nausea, chronic gastritis, and gastric and duodenal ulcers, especially among migrants who recycle circuit boards and plastic.
Another study has revealed e-waste labourers in China have very high concentrations of toxic flame retardants in their bodies. One worker had by far the highest concentration ever reported.
Major electronics firms should stop using hazardous chemicals to make their products safer and easier to recycle. All companies must take full responsibility for their products and take back their old products back for re-use, safe recycling or disposal. We are pressuring major electronic makers to reduce the toxicity and amount of e-waste being dumped every year.
A man sorts through vast piles of ewaste
You can do your part by supporting companies that make are making an effort to clean up their act by checking our Guide to Greener Electronics. Think twice before buying whether you really need a new device and return your old equipment to the manufacturer if possible.