Thursday, November 13, 2008

Where Do All The Dead Computers Go?

March 16, 2006: Workers unload electronic waste from trucks as seen from a hidden position inside of a vehicle in Guiyu, China.

The town looks like one of those extended garbage heaps you see on World Vision ads on television. The ones where the little children go every day to scavenge anything they can (instead of being able to go to school) in order to put a few grains of rice in the stomachs of their brothers and sisters. Sometimes they are responsible for the stomachs of their parents as well.

The smoke from the always-smoldering dump sites pollute the air they breathe and exact a heavy toll on their frail, undernourished bodies. The lucky ones have rags they can tie to their feet to protect them from the heat and the dangers in the dump.

In Guiyu, China things are similar. However, in this case, the entire village is involved the "recycling" of electronics. Those who settle and work in Guiyu are the truly destitute. Persons who are too desperate for money or too ill-formed to let the health risks stop them from working.

The air is heavy, acrid and laden with carcinogenic particles from the squat gas burners that sit outside homes and the plastic from the wires the workers melt over these burners in order to recover the copper inside. Computer motherboards are cooked for their gold content adding their toxic ingredients to the witches’ brew. Plastic casings are shredded; open fires, acid baths and broilers are used to recover the gold, silver, copper and other valuable metals while the thickener for this concoction is provided by migrant workers in filthy clothes who smash picture tubes by hand (no gloves – too expensive) to recover glass and electronic parts. They can add as much as 6.5 pounds of lead dust per person per day. Say good-bye to pink, healthy lungs, say hello to life in a computer graveyard.

As the picture shows, the trucks just show up and quickly unload their dead electronics right onto the street and then drive away. The workers come, pick through the stuff that has been dumped and take away the pieces they either “specialize” in or think will yield the most copper, gold and other saleable materials. It is estimated that approximately 70 percent of the 20-50 million tons of electronic waste produced globally each year is dumped in China. India and the poorer African nations are the lucky recipients of the rest.

"I've seen a lot of dirty operations in Third World countries; but, what was shocking was seeing all this post-consumer waste," said Jim Puckett of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network (after a visit to Guiyu). "This is all stuff from you and me."

One year ago, the environmental group Greenpeace sampled dust, soil, river sediment and groundwater in Guiyu and found escalating levels of toxic heavy metals and organic contaminants. They found “over 10 poisonous metals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium” reported Lai Yun, a campaigner for the Greenpeace.

“When the workers shatter the circuit boards into powder, they rinse it away with water,” said Wu, the environmental activist on the trip. "And the water goes into the rivers. They also use acid baths to dissolve metals on the boards. The acid is also released into the rivers," Wu continued.

Consequently, the ground water is so polluted that drinking water has to be trucked in from a town 18 miles away, Greenpeace reported. One river sample in the area had 190 times the pollution levels allowed under World Health Organization guidelines.

Water for the town is trucked in; but, that seems to be the only concession being made in showing concern for the workers’ health. Fish destined for the workers’ dinner plates are raised in local contaminated ponds which can’t help but contaminate the fish raised in them. Would you like your heavy metals in solid, liquid or gaseous form today? Piles of ash and plastic waste sit heaped haphazardly beside rice paddies and dikes that hold back the Lianjiang River. Accidents waiting to happen.

Chemicals, including mercury, fluorine, barium, chromium, and cobalt, that either leach from the waste or are used in processing, are blamed for skin rashes and respiratory problems.

Contamination can take decades to dissipate, experts say, and long-term health effects can include kidney and nervous system damage, weakening of the immune system and cancer.

"Of course, recycling is more environmentally sound," said Wu Song, a former local university student who has studied the area. "But I wouldn't really call what's happening here recycling."

Isn’t there some kind of legislation against this? Isn’t there some kind of law to help people like this? There is…and there isn’t. The reason this still continues next blog.

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