Toxic tea party

Feature story - July 23, 2007
Welcome to the Guiyu tea ceremony. Boss Guo sets a pair of thimble sized tea cups on a ceremonial tray. He half fills one of the tiny cups with bottled, drinkable water. In to the other he pours water from the well in his backyard. Then he fills both up with steaming Chinese tea. The cup with bottled water turns a healthy amber. The one with the well water instantly converts to an impenetrable black.

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 white shirt, doesn't know why. He says he sees no connection between the stacks of dismembered electrical equipment behind us in his workshop and the strange quality of his water. Still he won't drink the black tea. "We won't even shower with that water," he says.

Guiyu, near China's southeastern coast is the centre of an uncontrolled environmental 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 high cost of disposing of their electronic trash. In this part of China recycling e-waste is apparently free of any environmental or health and safety regulation.

Filthy to apocalyptic

The result is a landscape that varies from filthy to apocalyptic. In small workshops and yards and in the open countryside workers dismember the detritus of modernisation. Armed mostly with small hand tools they take apart old computers, monitors, printers, video and DVD players, photocopying machines, telephones and phone chargers, music speakers, car batteries and microwave ovens.

The scrap sites here are a profusion of technology brand names; HP, Dell, Compaq, IBM, Apple, Sun, NEC, LG and Motorola are just some of the names 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.

Chinese law forbids the importation of electronic waste and Beijing is also a signatory to the Basel Convention, an international treaty banning the shipment of e-waste from the developed to the developing world. But so far official prohibitions have been about as effective as the official banners urging environmental protection that flap in the breeze above the trash congested streets of Guiyu.

A rash of similar waste sites has broken out further up the coast. Enforcement is difficult because China's economic boom is the driving force behind price hikes on the world's metals markets. Raging domestic demand has China sucking in metals in any form it can. In such a market the demand for scrap metals, including electronic waste is enormous.

 

And there's an important push factor; the high cost of disposing and recycling of electronic waste in developed countries. The cost of landfill is increasing and several European countries and some US states have banned outright the disposal of e-waste in landfills or by incineration.

Some in China are fighting back against the avalanche of imported junk. An increasingly vocal environmental lobby inside and outside government is helping push through new legislation in an effort to stem the tide of imports, as well as the increasing swell of domestically produced electronic waste. They will also seek to reduce the number of toxins used in manufacturing electronic equipment.

Chineseman smelts computer parts in the open air to extract metals. Open air burning of computer waste releases large amounts of toxic fumes. (© Greenpeace/Lai Yun)

Unaware of these issues, workers in Guiyu 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.

Others place circuit boards in open acid baths to separate precious metals including the tiny quantities of gold and palladium they contain. 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 leaving an acrid stench of plastic, rubber and paint in the air.

A heavily polluted stream in Guiyu. Along side domestic rubbish the water is badly polluted with toxic waste from the e-waste recycling yards in the town. (© Greenpeace/Natalie Behring)

The environmental cost is real. Streams are black and pungent and choked with industrial waste. Kevin Brigden, from the Greenpeace Research Laboratories, tested streams in the Guiyu area and found acid baths leaching into them. The streams had a Ph of a strong acid. That's powerful enough to disintegrate a penny after a few hours, says Brigden. (Download the full scientific report on pollution in Guiyu).

There's also an economic cost. In Guiyu the price of water is ten times more than in Chendian, the neighbouring township that is today the main source 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 putrid cesspit we had driven past a few minutes before. "But that was nearly 20 years ago," he says. On the baking street in front of him a huge orange plastic tank perched on the back of a three wheeled agriculture vehicle dispenses water to Guiyu residents.

The digital divide

In the past two decades incomes have risen sharply even as the quality of the environment has plunged. The locals, who were initially driven to garbage recycling by their poverty, have become middle class. Unburdened by the costs of safe recycling, the economics behind e-waste disposal in Guiyu can mean a profitable living.

Many of the locals have moved out of their traditional single storey homes into newly built three and four storey buildings where the ground floor is reserved as a scrap-sorting workshop. Now they employ migrant workers to risk their health in this toxic business.

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)

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 around US$5 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.

But is this a better life? Most of these peasants turned workers say it is, albeit by a small margin. "It's a bit better than home," says one weary middle aged woman from Henan's Shangqiu county who works out of a rough shack inside a scrap yard, "there it's too poor, we barely had enough to eat." She makes between 200 and 300 yuan (US$ 24 - US$ 36) per month in Guiyu.

Xiao Li, who has been here longer and makes more money, has a TV and a mobile phone and shares a room in one of the old village houses rented out by the local owners who have moved into a four storey house in the township. He doesn't mind the pollution. "We are used to it," says the cheery 22 year old, "and there is no impact on my health."

Lead poisoning

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 children for concentrations of lead in their blood. Eighty-two percent of the Guiyu children had blood/lead levels of more than 100. Anything above that figure is considered unsafe by international health experts. The average reading for the group was 149.

High levels of lead in young children's blood 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 and the lowest was among those who recycled plastic.

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 recent 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.

A local doctor told us there was also a higher than normal incidence of miscarriages and handicapped babies among those who worked with e-waste. Much of this kind of information remains anecdotal because the hospitals have not been authorised to fully investigate the incidence of waste related illness among their patients he said.

The veil of silence means that nobody is held to account for the environmental and human impact of globalisation in Guiyu. There are plenty of people who should be held accountable and some who should not: "Lots of people are responsible, says Dr. Huo, "the bosses who run these businesses, the companies who ship the material and many others, she says, "but certainly not the workers. They are poor peasants and don't understand the damage this does to them."

Workers unpack a truck-load of e-waste which has just arrived for processing in Guiyu in Guangzhou province. (© Greenpeace/Natalie Behring)

Meanwhile the junk keeps coming to Guiyu. Imports of e-waste have been illegal in China since 1996 so there are no official figures on how much is coming into the country. Environmental activists and academics in Guangdong estimate that Guiyu alone handles over a million tonnes of e-waste annually. Whatever the figure it is obvious to any visitor that the trade goes on unhindered; scrap yards are piled high with imported waste and trucks can be seen unloading new cargo daily.

Stemming the toxic tide

Guiyu is one of the most graphic examples of digital dumps but similar places can be found across Asia and in certain locations in Africa. With amounts of e-waste growing rapidly each year urgent solutions are required. While the waste continues to flow into digital dumps like Guiyu there are measures that can help stem the toxic tide of e-waste.

Major electronics firms should remove the worst chemicals to make their products safer and easier to recycle. All companies must take full responsibility for their products and, once they reach the end of their useful life, take their goods 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.

You can also do your part by supporting companies that 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.

 

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