Posted by: kenwbudd | November 18, 2009

China: ‘E-waste capital of the world’ tries to clean up image

The southern Chinese city of Guiyu is where pc’s, cellphones and Playstations go to die. The workers who recycle them are exposed to dangerous chemicals.

Chen Yinghong hasn’t made tea with the water from the well or the little lake behind his workshop for years – not since the tea started foaming, and the women who work in the shop only drink bottled water.

During a recent visit, Yinghong’s workshop was a mess of electronic waste: keyboards. motherboards, power cords and pc casings. Women were melting motherboards on cookers to recover the lead and copper in them. For years these acid baths and other chemicals have been dumped unceremoniously into rivers and streams in and around Guiyu.

5 euros a day
Six men wearing protective masks were pounding away at pc’s, Playstations, TV’s and mobile phones with screwdrivers and hammers. Lead and glass particles danced in the sunlight. The fans are too small and weak to keep the air in the room healthy, and the workers complain of headaches, watery eyes and soar throats – all that for 5 euros and ten hours a day.

Around 70 percent of the world’s electronic waste ends up here in Guiyu. It is brought here from the nearby ports of Hong Kong and the Pearl River delta. There are around 7,000 e-waste processing workshops in Guiyu, where more than 60,000 economic migrants from the poorest parts of southern China remove the precious metals from electronic parts by hand.

Their working conditions resemble those of 19th century British factory workers.

For this reason the authorities in Guiyu are not very fond of journalists. When discovered they are strongly advised to leave unless they want to be beaten up.

Chen Yinghong had no problem talking to journalists. The e-waste trade has made him a rich man, as the BMW parked out front and his three sons’ new scooters showed. Chen’s workers, by contrast, have not gotten rich, or they wouldn’t be working here.

And yet Chen complained. There is no shortage of electronic waste, but the economic crisis has led to a severe drop in the price of copper and steel, he said. Worse, Chen is being made to move his workshop to a new industrial location with modern recycling facilities for which he will be charged rent. “First the crisis, now this. They’re killing our business,” he grumbled.

The working conditions in Guiyu were first exposed seven years ago by US environmental activists, but the Chinese authorities are only now getting around to doing something about them. After all, the e-waste business is good for a 100 million euros a year turnover.


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