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Monday, March 25, 2002

USA makes China dumping ground
Vincenzo Pelosi

Computer waste are left along a river bank at Yaocuowei village near Guiyu.
Computer waste are left along a river bank at Yaocuowei village near Guiyu.
 — Reuters photo

WHEN the inhabitants of Guiyu were told seven years ago that their poor rice-growing village in southeast China was to become part of the booming US technology sector, they couldn’t believe their luck.

Much of the peasants’ working lives had been spent toiling in paddy field and the prospect of being employed in one of the world’s fastest-growing industries raised hopes of an end to subsistence living.

But in the years that have passed those dreams have given way to a living nightmare.

The Guiyu of today is a village of contaminated waterways and polluted air; whose houses are covered with thick layers of toxic ash and streets littered with huge piles of poisonous waste.

Many of its inhabitants suffer from respiratory illnesses, skin infections or stomach diseases. Drinking water is so polluted that it has to be trucked in from a town, 30 km away.

The reason — Guiyu has become a dumping ground for the US toxic technology waste, imported directly from California’s Silicon Valley, the capital of the world’s hi-tech industry.


Guiyu’s fate is revealed in a damning report released February by an international network of environmental groups, including the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Greenpeace China and the Basel Action Network (BAN).

Researchers found that much of America’s unwanted computer hardware and electronics junk — dubbed e-waste — is sent via recycling plants in California to towns in China, India or Pakistan, where it is either dumped into irrigation canals or burnt in paddy fields. For American recycling firms, it is far cheaper to dump the waste on other countries than recycle it at home.

The California Integrated Waste Management Board, which regulates waste disposal in the state, says it is helpless.

In Guiyu nearly 1,00,000 men, women and children are paid $1.50 per day to break computers and monitors to salvage valuable materials, using only hammers, chisels and others crude tools.

Wearing no protective clothing, they burn plastics and soldered computer circuits in open fires; they also use crude acid baths housed inside makeshift huts to extract gold from electronic components.

As they crack, smash and burn components, they are unaware of the potential harm of the dangerous chemicals inside.

"We found a cyber-age nightmare," Jim Puckett, one of the BAN investigators who produced the report said "They call this recycling, but it is dumping by any other name. A few families started doing it because it was seen as a lucrative alternative to rice farming.

"It just caught on from there to become the area’s main industry."

Toxic materials such as cadmium, known to cause kidney disease, lead, which attacks the nervous system, and mercury, which can provoke brain damage, leak into the environment and find their way into water supplies. Some people wash vegetables and dishes with the polluted water and they get skin problems.

Citing independent studies, the report estimates that the USA will have 500 million obsolete computers to discard by 2007 — that means 717 million kg of lead, 1.36 million kg of cadmium and 2,87,000 kg of mercury, all ready to be exported.

"The electronics industry is the world’s largest and fastest-growing manufacturing industry and as a consequence of this growth, e-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the industrialised world," the report said.

Similar e-waste dumps and makeshift recycling huts have been found in Karachi in Pakistan and in New Delhi, India.

In America, up to 80 per cent of what the country terms ‘recyclable’ electronics waste is sent to Asia and rather than trying to stop the practice, the US government is actively encouraging it, the report claims.

The United States is the only industrialised country that has not ratified the Basel Convention, a United Nations environmental treaty that bans the export of hazardous waste to developing nations.

Though the US does have controls on the transfer of hazardous substances yet material considered ‘recyclable’ are not regulated by the authorities. This loophole allows recycling companies to dump e-waste on other countries without fear of prosecution. The report said: "While the US give a good talk about the principle of environmental justice at home for their own population, they work actively on the global stage in direct opposition to it."

The Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, a high-tech trade and policy organisation that counts computer giants Intel and Apple among its members, is aware of the problem.

But according to Margret Bruce, the group’a environmental programmes director, it remains unclear whether it is manufacturers or consumers who should take responsibility. "After all, some would say that consumers bought it and should be responsible for the waste," she explained.

Some of Silicon Valley’s tech companies are introducing measures to combat the problem. Hewlett Packard, one of the US’s largest computer companies has had its own recycling programme in place for seven years.

Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, puts it: "Rather than sweeping our e-waste out the backdoor by exporting to the poor of the world, we have to address it square in the face and solve it at home, in this country, at its manufacturing source."

For the people of Guiyu however, it may already be too late.

— Gemini News