Where your used electronics go in China
03:38 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

U.N. report: "China now appears to be the largest e-waste dumping site in the world"

Products originally produced in China are now finding their way back as electronic junk

The small town of Guiyu as been a major hub for the disposal of e-waste

"When recycling is done in primitive ways ... it is hugely devastating for the local environment"

Guiyu, China CNN  — 

Did you ever wonder what happens to your old laptop or cellphone when you throw it away?

Chances are some of your old electronic junk will end up in China.

According to a recent United Nations report, “China now appears to be the largest e-waste dumping site in the world.”

E-waste, or electronic waste, consists of everything from scrapped TVs, refrigerators and air conditioners to that old desktop computer that may be collecting dust in your closet.

Many of these gadgets were initially manufactured in China. Through a strange twist of global economics, much of this electronic junk returns to China to die.

“According to United Nations data, about 70% of electronic waste globally generated ended up in China,” said Ma Tianjie, a spokesman for the Beijing office of Greenpeace.

“Much of [the e-waste] comes through illegal channels because under United Nations conventions, there is a specific ban on electronic waste being transferred from developed countries like the United States to countries like China and Vietnam.”

For the past decade, the southeastern town of Guiyu, nestled in China’s main manufacturing zone, has been a major hub for the disposal of e-waste. Hundreds of thousands of people here have become experts at dismantling the world’s electronic junk.

On seemingly every street, laborers sit on the pavement outside workshops ripping out the guts of household appliances with hammers and drills. The roads in Guiyu are lined with bundles of plastic, wires, cables and other garbage. Different components are separated based on their value and potential for re-sale. On one street sits a pile of green and gold circuit boards. On another, the metal cases of desktop computers.

At times, it looks like workers are reaping some giant plastic harvest, especially when women stand on roadsides raking ankle-deep “fields” of plastic chips.

In one workshop, men sliced open sacks of these plastic chips, which they then poured into large vats of fluid. They then used shovels and their bare hands to stir this synthetic stew.

“We sell this plastic to Foxconn,” one of the workers said, referring to a Taiwanese company that manufactures products for many global electronics companies, including Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

Dirty, dangerous work

This may be one of the world’s largest informal recycling operations for electronic waste. In one family-run garage, workers seemed to specialize in sorting plastic from old televisions and cars into different baskets. “If this plastic cup has a hole in it, you throw it away,” said a man who ran the operation, pointing to a pink plastic mug. “We take it and re-sell it.”

But recycling in Guiyu is dirty, dangerous work. “When recycling is done properly, it’s a good thing for the environment,” said Ma, the Greenpeace spokesman in Beijing.

“But when recycling is done in primitive ways like we have seen in China with the electronic waste, it is hugely devastating for the local environment.”

According to the April 2013 U.N. report “E-Waste in China,” Guiyu suffered an “environmental calamity” as a result of the wide-scale e-waste disposal industry in the area.

Much of the toxic pollution comes from burning circuit boards, plastic and copper wires, or washing them with hydrochloric acid to recover valuable metals like copper and steel. In doing so, workshops contaminate workers and the environment with toxic heavy metals like lead, beryllium and cadmium, while also releasing hydrocarbon ashes into the air, water and soil, the report said.

For first-time visitors to Guiyu, the air leaves a burning sensation in the eyes and nostrils.

Toxic tech

Studies by the Shantou University Medical College revealed that many children tested in Guiyu had higher than average levels of lead in their blood, which can stunt the development of the brain and central nervous system.

Piles of technological scrap had been dumped in a muddy field just outside of town. There, water buffalo grazed and soaked themselves in ponds surrounded by piles of electronic components with labels like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Epson and Dell.

The enormous animals casually stomped through mounds of sheet glass, which clearly had been removed from video monitors.

Flat screen displays often use mercury, a highly toxic metal.

“Releases of mercury can occur during the dismantling of equipment such as flat screen displays,” wrote Greenpeace, in a report titled “Toxic Tech.” “Incineration or landfilling can also result in releases of mercury to the environment…that can bioaccumulate and biomagnify to high levels in food chains, particularly in fish.”

Most of the workers in Guiyu involved in the e-waste business are migrants from destitute regions of China and poorly educated. Many of them downplayed the potential damage the industry could cause to their health.

They asked only to use their family names, to protect their identity.

“Of course it isn’t healthy,” said Lu, a woman who was rapidly sorting plastic shards from devices like computer keyboards, remote controls and even computer mice. She and her colleagues burned plastic using lighters and blow-torches to identify different kinds of material.

“But there are families that have lived here for generations … and there is little impact on their health,” she said.

Several migrants said that while the work is tough, it allows them more freedom than working on factory lines where young children are not permitted to enter the premises and working hours are stringent.

Used to be worse

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