Tea made with imported water and a dark, murky tea made with polluted local water. The local water makes the tea turn black, probably due to the horrific groundwater pollution from Guiyu's e-waste yards.
Guo, a brash young man dressed in a purple polyester suit and
whiteshirt, doesn't know why. He says he sees no connection between
thestacks of dismembered electrical equipment behind us in his
workshopand the strange quality of his water. Still he won't drink
the blacktea. "We won't even shower with that water," he says.
Guiyu,near China's southeastern coast is the centre of an
uncontrolledenvironmental disaster. Here and in several nearby
townships,electronic waste, most of it imported, is broken up in
small workshops.It's a version of outsourcing that saves wealthier
countries the highcost of disposing of their electronic trash. In
this part of Chinarecycling e-waste is apparently free of any
environmental or health andsafety regulation.
Filthy to apocalyptic
The resultis a landscape that varies from filthy to apocalyptic.
In smallworkshops and yards and in the open countryside workers
dismember thedetritus of modernisation. Armed mostly with small
hand tools they takeapart old computers, monitors, printers, video
and DVD players,photocopying machines, telephones and phone
chargers, music speakers,car batteries and microwave ovens.
Thescrap sites here are a profusion of technology brand names;
HP, Dell,Compaq, IBM, Apple, Sun, NEC, LG and Motorola are just
some of thenames we found in the piles of tech junk. They are made
in the US,Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand,
Mexico, Austria,Germany and UK.
Chineseman smelts computer parts in the open air to extract metals. Open airburning of computer waste releases large amounts of toxic fumes. (©Greenpeace/Lai Yun)
Chinese law forbids the importationof electronic waste and
Beijing is also a signatory to the BaselConvention, an
international treaty banning the shipment of e-wastefrom the
developed to the developing world. But so far officialprohibitions
have been about as effective as the official bannersurging
environmental protection that flap in the breeze above the
trashcongested streets of Guiyu.
A rash of similar waste sites hasbroken out further up the
coast. Enforcement is difficult becauseChina's economic boom is the
driving force behind price hikes on theworld's metals markets.
Raging domestic demand has China sucking inmetals in any form it
can. In such a market the demand for scrapmetals, including
electronic waste is enormous.
Andthere's an important push factor; the high cost of disposing
andrecycling of electronic waste in developed countries. The cost
oflandfill is increasing and several European countries and some
USstates have banned outright the disposal of e-waste in landfills
Some in China are fighting back against theavalanche of imported
junk. An increasingly vocal environmental lobbyinside and outside
government is helping push through new legislationin an effort to
stem the tide of imports, as well as the increasingswell of
domestically produced electronic waste. They will also seek
toreduce the number of toxins used in manufacturing electronic
Unawareof these issues, workers in Guiyu painstakingly reduce
every piece ofequipment to its smallest components. These are then
farmed off to'specialists', workers dedicated to stripping wires
for the copper theycontain or melting the lead solder from circuit
Othersplace circuit boards in open acid baths to separate
precious metalsincluding the tiny quantities of gold and palladium
they contain.Plastics are graded by quality and other parts are
burned to separateplastic from scrap metal. After this thorough
dismembering anyremaining combustibles are left to burn in open
fires leaving an acridstench of plastic, rubber and paint in the
Aheavily polluted stream in Guiyu. Along side domestic rubbish the wateris badly polluted with toxic waste from the e-waste recycling yards inthe town. (© Greenpeace/Natalie Behring)
Theenvironmental cost is real. Streams are black and pungent and
chokedwith industrial waste. Kevin Brigden, from the Greenpeace
ResearchLaboratories, tested streams in the Guiyu area and found
acid bathsleaching into them. The streams had a Ph of a strong
acid. That'spowerful enough to disintegrate a penny after a few
hours, says Brigden. (
Download the full scientific report on pollution in Guiyu).
There'salso an economic cost. In Guiyu the price of water is ten
times morethan in Chendian, the neighbouring township that is today
the mainsource of Guiyu's water. "We used to draw our water from
the lake,"says an elderly man, jerking his head in the direction of
the putridcesspit we had driven past a few minutes before. "But
that was nearly20 years ago," he says. On the baking street in
front of him a hugeorange plastic tank perched on the back of a
three wheeled agriculturevehicle dispenses water to Guiyu
The digital divide
Inthe past two decades incomes have risen sharply even as the
quality ofthe environment has plunged. The locals, who were
initially driven togarbage recycling by their poverty, have become
middle class.Unburdened by the costs of safe recycling, the
economics behind e-wastedisposal in Guiyu can mean a profitable
Many of thelocals have moved out of their traditional single
story homes intonewly built three and four storey buildings where
the ground floor isreserved as a scrap-sorting workshop. Now they
employ migrant workersto risk their health in this toxic
Youngworkers "bake" computer motherboards from e-waste in a workshop toremove valuable metals. The baking produces highly dangerous fumes andtoxic waste which is then dumped. (© Greenpeace/Natalie Behring)
Forthe migrants, this is as close as they'll come to bridging
the digitaldivide. 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 yearsprocessing high tech equipment from around the
world. He makes aroundUS$5 per day melting lead solder off circuit
boards and says that lifeis better here than in his remote farming
village in the mountains ofSichuan.
But is this a better life? Most of these peasantsturned workers
say it is, albeit by a small margin. "It's a bit betterthan home,"
says one weary middle aged woman from Henan's Shangqiucounty who
works out of a rough shack inside a scrap yard, "there it'stoo
poor, we barely had enough to eat." She makes between 200 and
300yuan (US$ 24 - US$ 36) per month in Guiyu.
Xiao Li, who hasbeen here longer and makes more money, has a TV
and a mobile phone andshares a room in one of the old village
houses rented out by the localowners who have moved into a four
storey house in the township. Hedoesn't mind the pollution. "We are
used to it," says the cheery 22year old, "and there is no impact on
Heis probably wrong. Only limited investigations have been
carried out onthe health effects of Guiyu's poisoned environment,
but those that havepaint an alarming picture. One of them was
carried out by Professor HuoXia (full
study), of the Shantou University Medical College, an hour and
a half'sdrive from Guiyu.
Shetested 165 children for concentrations of lead in their
blood. Eightytwo percent of the Guiyu children had blood/lead
levels of more than100. Anything above that figure is considered
unsafe by internationalhealth experts. The average reading for the
group was 149.
Highlevels of lead in young children's blood can impact IQ and
thedevelopment of the central nervous system. The highest
concentrationsof lead were found in the children of parents whose
workshop dealt withcircuit boards and the lowest was among those
who recycled plastic.
Aseparate report by the Shantou Medical University Hospital in
November2003 found a high incidence of skin damage, headaches,
vertigo, nausea,chronic gastritis, and gastric and duodenal ulcers,
especially amongmigrants who recycle circuit boards and
Another recent study has revealed e-waste labourers in China
very high concentrations of toxic flame retardants in their
bodies. One worker had by far the highest concentration ever
A local doctortold us there was also a higher than normal
incidence of miscarriagesand handicapped babies among those who
worked with e-waste. Much ofthis kind of information remains
anecdotal because the hospitals havenot been authorised to fully
investigate the incidence of waste relatedillness among their
patients he said.
The veil of silence meansthat nobody is held to account for the
environmental and human impactof globalisation in Guiyu. There are
plenty of people who should beheld accountable and some who should
not: "Lots of people areresponsible, says Dr. Huo, "the bosses who
run these businesses, thecompanies who ship the material and many
others, she says, "butcertainly not the workers. They are poor
peasants and don't understandthe damage this does to them."
Workersunpack a truck-load of e-waste which has just arrived for processing inGuiyu in Guangzhou province. (© Greenpeace/Natalie Behring)
Meanwhilethe junk keeps coming to Guiyu. Imports of e-waste have
been illegal inChina since 1996 so there are no official figures on
how much is cominginto the country. Environmental activists and
academics in Guangdongestimate that Guiyu alone handles over a
million tonnes of e-wasteannually. Whatever the figure it is
obvious to any visitor that thetrade goes on unhindered; scrap
yards are piled high with importedwaste and trucks can be seen
unloading new cargo daily.
Stemming the toxic tide
Guiyuis one of the most graphic examples of digital dumps but
similar placescan be found across Asia and in certain locations in
Africa. Withamounts of e-waste growing rapidly each year urgent
solutions arerequired.While the waste continues to flow into
digital dumps likeGuiyu there are measures that can help stem the
toxic tide of e-waste.
Majorelectronics firms should remove the worst chemicals to make
theirproducts safer and easier to recycle. All companies must take
fullresponsibility for their products and, once they reach the end
of theiruseful life, take their goods back for re-use, safe
recycling ordisposal. We are
pressuring major electronic makers to reduce the toxicity and
amount of e-waste being dumped every year.
You can also 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.
Challenge the major companies in the electronics industry to be the first to create a greener computer without the worst toxic chemicals.
We never allow ourselves to be fed by a hand we might want to bite. Not accepting corporate donations means we rely entirely on people like you to help keep us going. Some of our corporate targets spend in a few hours what we spend in an entire year. Please help with anything you can.