Waste from scuttled electronics is full of toxic chemicals, but it’s also full of valuable metals and other materials. That turns e-waste into ore, something something from which value can be extracted. Terry J. Allen at In These Times reports that up to 80 percent of e-waste from the United States goes to China. And what happens when it gets there isn’t pretty.
Most of the junk ends up in the small port city of Guiyu, a one-industry town four hours from Hong Kong that reeks of acid fumes and burning plastic. Its narrow streets are lined with 5,500 small-scale scavenger enterprises euphemistically called “recyclers.” They employ 80 percent of the town’s families—more than 30,000 people—who recover copper, gold and other valuable materials from 15 million tons of e-waste.
Unmasked and ungloved, Guiyu’s workers dip motherboards into acid baths, shred and grind plastic casings from monitors, and grill components over open coal fires. They expose themselves to brain-damaging, lung-burning, carcinogenic, birth-defect- inducing toxins such as lead, mercury, cadmium and bromated flame retardants (the subject of last month’s column), as well as to dioxin at levels up to 56 times World Health Organization standards. Some 82 percent of children under 6 around Guiyu have lead poisoning.
Allen writes that dumping toxic waste in developing countries is illegal under international law, but the whole process is labeled as “recycling,” leaving it largely unmonitored.