In Guiyu, the e-waste nightmare is far from over

From ToxicLeaks

Guiyu is the symbol that the “brave new world” of dematerialised communication and electronic data production and processing had a very dark side. Indeed, the area of Guiyu, in the Chinese province of Guangdong, is the world capital of electronic waste. In 1995, the four once peaceful villages of the area suddenly became the biggest global hub for the disposal of electronic waste : cellphones and computers obviously but also televisions, air conditioners and washing machines. This “electronic graveyard of the world” had caused huge environmental hazards and tremendous health issues, mostly among the tens of thousands of workers shipped in to break down the electronic devices that ended up in Guiyu. Of course, this environmental and human cost was totally ignored by the international corporations that built and sold these products. The same goes for Chinese officials that have grown rich over the last two decades on the packs of the people of Guiyu and the migrant workers that were brought there. The situation has started to improve marginally during the past years. The management of the waste has been transferred to an industrial park seemingly designed to conduct that activity safely. However, the heavy pollution in Guiyu has poisoned the air, water and soil for so long that there are still a lot of issues to deal with.

The electronic graveyard of the world[edit | edit source]

What is the consequence of the seemingly limitless number of iPhones and iPads that Apple “invents” every year ? Well, obviously, it makes us buy a new one, and as Bill Maher pointed out, Apple doesn't do it to ensure that its phones answer our needs : “The only people who really need you to get a new phone every year are the shareholders”. And that creates a whole string of environmental and health issues, even if they don't get the same coverage as the yearly release of Apple's “groundbreaking” new products. It all begin with getting the core raw material needed to build the phones, the rare-earths like cerium or neodymium, which are mined without any care to protect the environment or the workers. Close the city of Baotou, in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, there is a lake so full of the chemical byproducts released by the processing of these rare-earths that the water has turned black and that a crust has formed around its edge, so thick that you can walk on it. And that's not all. Once the smartphones and tablets have been produced, at this insane ecological and human cost, they are sold and used, but only for so long, because Apple's shareholders need you to buy new ones, so they are discarded and they end up in an electronic graveyard, most likely in Guiyu, the largest electronic waste processing area in the world. And the end of the cycle is quite like its beginning, unsafe for workers and populations living nearby, incredibly disruptive for the ecosystem.

Incredibly unsafe working conditions[edit | edit source]

Ok so why would the devices end up in China ? Because they are still valuable, since a lot of raw material can be recovered, although it's dangerous to do so because there are also some chemicals that are very harmful. And up to 2015, they were done by the people of the villages and migrant workers, without the necessary protective gear. One of the operations that was conducted in Guiyu was “toner sweeping”, which means opening the plastic cartridges to recover the ink residue and sell it so it can be sold again. Only this created a cloud of toner that the workers inhaled, which could be very dangerous to their lungs. Another hazardous operation was “open burning”, which means burning copper wires to melt the casing and recover the metal. However, the combustion of the wire insulation released very harmful gases such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. And this has been confirmed by medical research that had found that the children of Guiyu all had shockingly elevated lead levels. How could that happen, when we know the horrific impacts of lead on the development of children ? It all comes down to human misery. These families were so poor that everybody was put to work, and by working 16 hour shifts, the men, women and children working in Guiyu managed to earn 1 to 2 $ a day. The families ran home-built workshops to heat the circuit boards of tech products to recover the metal or the plastic inside. They hoped to find fragments of gold, palladium, silver or copper. But they didn't know how bad the process was for their health. Or they did, but it was the only way they could survive. Because only 20% of the electronic waste that comes in Guiyu is from China ! 80 % comes from the rest of the world, and mostly Western countries where Apple, Samsung and all that crowd force feed us tech products we don't need ! And now, in Guiyu, doing anything else is not an option anymore, because the electronic graveyard has destroyed the farmlands and made all agricultural activity impossible. This is the result of the environmental nightmare that the electronic waste processing had brought on the villages of Guiyu.

An area heavily polluted by the metals and chemicals from the electronic waste[edit | edit source]

The reason why the farmers of Guiyu have stopped growing rice is that the area has underwent horrific pollution. The earth is full of heavy metals and the streams have received outrageous amounts of untreated wastewater which have altered them beyond recognition. The most polluting operation was doubtless the circuit-board recycling, which involved heating up the circuit-boards to recover the chips and then recovering precious metals such as gold from the chips, through the very crude process of acid baths. The sludge generated in this process was then dumped onto the banks of the rivers, with horrific environmental consequences. This was acknowledged by local authorities, such as Zheng Jinxiong, deputy director of the Guiyu Recycling Economic and Industrial Zone : "Many workshops discharged untreated acid wastewater directly into the rivers". Because of this, the river flowing through Guiyu was tested with high levels of acidity and a copper content close to copper ore ! Just one year after Guiyu became a processing centre, in 1996, its people stopped drinking the water, which had begun to taste foul. And ever since, they have relied on bottled water trucked in every day. Similar testing found signs of heavy pollution in the soil as well. Samples were tested with insane levels of heavy metals such as barium, at a level t10 times the EPA threshold, tin, at a level 152 times the EPA threshold, and chromium, at a level 1,338 times the EPA threshold.

Guiyu's environmental scandal has outraged the whole world[edit | edit source]

The martyrdom of Guiyu and its people has been widely documented. The first to cover the disaster were the Basel Action Network, a non-profit organisation focused on tackling the export of toxic pollution to emerging countries by transnational firms. In 2002, they released a documentary called “Exporting harm, The High-Tech trashing of Asia” and they included a large section on the situation of Guiyu, where they had conducted a thorough investigation. Their title reflects the reason of Guiyu's ordeal, western companies and consumers have been turning a blind eye to the nasty consequences of their mass consumption economic system. The situation of Guiyu attracted the notice of major actors of environmental protection such as the NGO Greenpeace or even international organization like the United Nations, that mentioned the case of Guiyu in a 2013 report on “China's E-waste problem”. This has piled pressure on the Chinese government. Initially, local authorities sought to hide the issue. In 2008, a crew working for the CBS show 60 minutes went to Guiyu to document the illegal workshops. But they were arrested by the local police and brought to the mayor's office who proceeded to give them a false account of Guiyu's situation, as Scott Pelley recounts : "We were brought into the mayor's office. The mayor told us that we're essentially not welcome here, but he would show us one place where computers are being dismantled and this is that place. A pretty tidy shop. The mayor told us that we would be welcome to see the rest of the town, but that the town wouldn't be prepared for our visit for another year.”  

A new electronic waste processing facility : not the miracle the people of Guiyu are hoping for[edit | edit source]

Finally, almost 15 years after the BAN's documentary, the Chinese government decided to close all the illegal workshops and gather the recycling activities in a large industrial park, the “Guiyu Circular Economy Industrial Park”. To that end, it invested 1.5 billion yuans (about $233 million), a sizeable amount. Not to mention finally enforcing the ban on foreign e-scrap imports ! Such imports had been forbidden for decades but had still followed through illegal channels all the way down to Guiyu's workshops. The official move happened on December 1st 2015. Guiyu's happy ending ? Jim Puckett, the head of BAN, has mixed feelings on the topic. On the one hand, it is the first time the Chinese government really acts to solve the problem : “This day of action in Guiyu has been promised for over a decade, and it is truly remarkable to finally see it first hand”. But this positive decision does not erase the years of atrocious pollution : “The celebration is dampened, however, by how long it has taken, how much damage has been done”. A view shared by Lai Yun, an environmental activist from Canton : “When I talk to children, I share with them the story of Guiyu and how the environment, once polluted, will remain contaminated with heavy metals and persistent chemicals for centuries,” Lai says. “Guiyu is a lesson that a 'war on pollution' that China has now undertaken is best fought through preventing the pollution in the first place.” Furthermore, the situation in Guiyu may have improved but is still not perfect. In the new facilities, the same processing is taking place, and it is still quite dangerous to the workers and the environment even though safety measures have lessened the risk. Finally, there are some huge concerns about the effectivity of the ban on electronic waste imports. As Jim Puckett, explains : “We fear that the externalization of costs and harm will simply continue to new locations as long as countries like the United States allow exports of hazardous wastes with impunity.” Indeed, China is beginning to do its part to address the horrific situation in Guiyu, but will the companies truly liable for the amount of E-waste shipped to emerging countries – a.k.a. Samsung, Apple, HP, Dell, IBM, … – finally take responsibility and stop exporting the processing of that waste, so that it doesn't lead to massive health and ecological hazards.