The Electronics Graveyard: Guiyu, China
Have you ever wondered what happens to your computer at the end of its life cycle? If you recycle with an irresponsible company, it might end up in a place like Guiyu, China.
Amidst piles of discarded computers, televisions, telephones, and other electronics, workers struggle to make a living picking apart plastics, toners, and metals. Toxic smoke fills the air because even though fire and acid are the cheapest ways to extract metals, they release toxins into the air, ground, and water. Ash rivers flow through the city, contaminating the water and leading to health and digestive problems. The problem is so severe that water now has to be imported, something the residents can ill-afford. People living in the city are found to have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood and increased cases of cancer and miscarriages.
Guiyu, often referred to as the “e-waste capital of China” (and possibly the world), is one of the most popular dumping places in the world for used electronics. Electronic waste is brought in by the truckload, and workers earn $8.00 a day or less picking them apart. The work may be dangerous and illegal, but the workers need the money.
According to Greenpeace, limited investigations have shown the alarming effects of these recycling methods. Professor Huo Xia of Shantou University Medical College tested 165 Guiyu children for the lead concentrations in their blood. Of those tested, 82 percent had levels of over 100, which is considered unsafe by experts. The average reading was 149. This can impact the IQ and physical development of the children, and lead to serious health concerns later on in life.
The Chinese government has been trying to shut down these e-waste dumps, but the problem is out of control and there isn’t much they can do about it.
Companies export e-waste to foreign countries mainly for financial reasons. It is approximately 10 times cheaper for recyclers to export their e-waste to China than it is to recycle it in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This is because the U.S. has stricter laws and standards for the workers and the environment, which provides little incentive for some recyclers to use responsible methods.In 2008 the U.S. government set up a sting operation and found over 42 American companies willing to sell their e-waste to Hong Kong. Several claimed to dispose of it in the U.S. on their website.
How do you find a company that recycles responsibly? One way is to make sure that it is certified. These companies follow a set of standards, remain accountable for the products recycled, and never ship their products overseas.