Safety problems caused by the recycling of our obsolete electronic devices are not new. (Check for example "Why tech pollution's going global", "Cleaning Up Clean Rooms" or "What to do with unwanted cell phones?")
The Washington Post has investigated in China where "unsafe recycling practice grows despite import ban."
In towns such as Guiyu on China's southeastern coast, vast quantities of obsolete electronics shipped in from the United States, Europe and Japan are piled in mountains of waste. Even as entire communities, including children, earn their livelihoods by scavenging metals, glass and plastic from the dumps, the technological garbage is poisoning the water and soil and raising serious health concerns.
China's role as dumping ground for the world's unwanted gadgets is an outgrowth of efforts by wealthy countries to protect their own environments. Many governments are encouraging the recycling of computers to keep them out of landfills and prevent heavy metals from seeping into drinking water.
Officially, China has its own ban on such imports, but the law is easily circumvented through payments to corrupt customs officials, according to industry sources.
The real costs are being borne by the people on the receiving end of the "e-waste." In towns along China's coast as well as in India and Pakistan, adults and children work for about $1.20 a day in unregulated and unsafe conditions. As rivers and soils absorb a mounting influx of carcinogens and other toxins, people are suffering high incidences of birth defects, infant mortality, tuberculosis and blood diseases, as well as particularly severe respiratory problems, according to recent reports by the state-controlled Guangdong Radio and the Beijing Youth newspaper.
The authors look in depth not only to the high toll on people and the environment, but also at the role of the middlemen who buy discarded computers in the United States and Europe and ship them to China, making good money on fees. Is this possible to recycle them in our developed countries? Exporting the used computers to China costs ten times the cost of dismantling them locally, so there's a bit of a challenge.
The reporters are not very optimistic. Here is their conclusion.
"It's dangerous, yes, but no money is more dangerous," said an 18-year-old woman named Lin, who came Guiyu from a neighboring province for work, as two children pulled discarded computer mice through the muddy street like toy ships. "No money means you'll die of hunger."
If you want to know more about this problem, you can download a report from two organizations, the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia."
Source: Peter S. Goodman, with Wang Ting, The Washington Post, February 24, 2003
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