The Need for E-Cycling Done Right

In 2013 it was estimated that China was the world’s largest dumping location for obsolete electronics, most of which came from other countries. A spokesperson from Greenpeace estimated over 70% of the world’s electronic waste, or e-waste, is ending up primitively recycled in China, instead of being recycled properly in the country it is derived from.[1] Recycling electronics (e-cycling) done wrong is harmful to the health of the workers, the community and the environment where it is performed. Without reducing the accumulation of e-waste as well as increasing the effectiveness of e-waste recycling facilities in the countries producing considerable amounts of e-waste, such as the United States, the e-waste is likely to continue to be illegally shipped to other countries to be disposed of. Although it is illegal to transport e-waste from the United States to other countries, it is still an occurring operation, one that drew numerous investigative reports by reputable news sources such as CNN, BBC as well as CBS’s 60 Minutes.

Both CNN and CBS separately visited one of the China’s largest e-waste sites, located in Guiyu, a town in southern China. They found Guiyu neighborhoods inundated with e-waste, much of it broken down and separated into piles to be consolidated. The town was reported to be so thick with air pollution from melting electronics it burned eyes and throats. It is said to contain rice paddies so contaminated by the melting of electronics, the locals wouldn’t even eat it. The reports further described Guiyu as a place where wild buffalo walk on glass from monitors, rivers run black with ash from burning down electronics and the corruption runs wild. CBS was told by Guiyu’s mayor’s office that they were not welcome to visit various recycling plants, only one they would be escorted to. They described being mugged when they tried to venture out on their own, having their soil samples taken and struggling to keep their cameras. The people in Guiyu explained to CBS they go through this process to sell the elements and plastic even though the work is toxic, stating it pays well, as much as the equivalent 8 American dollars a day.[2] One worker told CNN they sell their plastic to Foxconn, a company that manufactures electronics for Dell and Apple.

The process of breaking down electronics is especially hazardous for the worker’s health. Electronic waste is melted by blow torches to establish which elements are available to harvest. Hydrochloric acid is also used to strip valuable elements from the e-waste. As CNN’s video shows plastics added to vats of unknown fluid and mixed by workers’ bare hands, one can only image the health hazards. Shantou University in China reported Guiyu has the highest level of cancer-causing substances in the world. Workers, some very young, are also exposed to high amounts of lead, leading to lead poisoning which is known to cause developmental issues.[3] This widespread contamination of the environment and its inhabitants should be of concern to everyone across the world that comes into contact with electronics. It can be argued that if we are not part of the solution we are part of the problem. Considering one’s contribution to the e-waste problem may provide insight on how to become part of the solution.

Watch CNN’s video here.
Watch CBS’s video here.