The highway of poisoned products that runs from China to the
United States is not a one-way street. America ships China up
to 80 percent of its electronic waste -- discarded computers,
cell phones, TVs, etc. Last year alone, the United States
exported enough e-waste to cover a football field and rise a
mile into the sky.
So while the media ride their new lead-painted hobbyhorse--
the danger of Chinese wares -- spare a thought for Chinese
workers dying to dispose of millions of tons of our toxic crap.
Most of the junk ends up in the small port city of Guiyu, a
one-industry town four hours from Hong Kong that reeks of
acid fumes and burning plastic. Its narrow streets are lined
with 5,500 small-scale scavenger enterprises euphemistically
called "recyclers." They employ 80 percent of families or
more than 30,000 people who recover copper, gold, and other
valuable materials from 15 millions of tons of e-waste.
Unmasked and ungloved, Guiyu's workers dip
motherboards into acid baths, shred and grind plastic
casings from monitors, and grill components over open
coal fires. They expose themselves and their
community to brain-damaging, lung-burning,
carcinogenic, birth-defect-inducing toxins such as lead,
mercury, cadmium and bromated flame retardants (the
subject of last month's column), as well as to dioxin at
levels up to 56 times World Health Organization
standards. Some 82 percent of children under 6 around
Guiyu have lead poisoning
While workers reap $1 to $3 a day and an early death,
the "recycling" industry in both the United States and
China harvests profits. U.S. exporters not only avoid
the cost of environmentally sound disposal at home, but
they also turn a profit from selling the waste abroad.
After disassembly, one ton of computer scrap yields
more gold than 17 tons of gold ore, and circuit boards
can be 40 times richer in copper than cooper ore. In
Guiyu alone, workers extract 5 tons of gold, 1 ton of
silver and an estimated $150 million a year.
Many U.S. exporters pose as recyclers rather than
dumpers. But a 2005 Government Accountability
Office report found that "it is difficult to verify that
exported used electronics are actually destined for
reuse, or that they are ultimately managed responsibly
once they leave U.S. shores."
This dumping of toxic waste by developed countries
onto developing ones is illegal under the Basel
Convention, a 1992 international treaty that was signed
by every industrialized nation except the United
Unhindered by international law and unmonitored by
Washington, U.S. brokers simply label e-waste"recyclable" and ship it somewhere with lax
environmental laws, corrupt officials and desperately
poor workers. China has all three. And a packing case
with a $100 bill taped to it slips as easily as an eel
through Guiyu's ports.
E-waste fills a neat niche in the U.S.-China trade.
America's insatiable appetite for cheap Chinese goods
has created a trade deficit that topped $233 billion last
year. While e-waste does little to redress the financial
disparity, it helps ensure that the container vessels
carrying merchandise to Wal-Mart's shelves do not
return empty to China.
In the 19th century, England faced a similarly massive
deficit with China until a different kind of
junk -- opium -- allowed it to complete the lucrative
England-India-China trade triangle.
Britain, after destroying India's indigenous textile
industry and impoverishing local weavers, flooded its
colony with English textiles carried on English ships.
The British East India Company fleet then traveled to
China to buy tea, silk, and other commodities to sate
Europe's appetites for "exotic" luxuries. But since there
was little the Chinese wanted from either India or
Europe, the ships traveled light and profitless on the
India-China side of the triangle. That is, until England
forced Indian peasants to grow opium and, in the
process, precipitate mass starvation by diverting
The trade fleet then filled up with opium and pushed it
in China through the port of Canton. Since opium was
illegal in China, Britain started a war in 1839 to force
Peking to accept the drug. By 1905 more than a quarter
of China's male population was addicted.
Now it is Americans who are addicted to Chinese junk.
And our own government policies and corporations are
the ones stoking the jones. Slick marketing and
consumer fetishism push Americans to buy the
lightest, biggest, smallest, fastest, trendiest items. And
even if you are not hooked on the latest, repairs or
upgrades are impractical. So the half billion computers
we trashed in the last decade have to go somewhere,
and shipping them to China and other poor nations is a
win-win solution for Chinese and U.S. industry.
As for the populations of both countries, we can feast
on the irony that the same ships that carry toxic toys
and food ingredients to Americans return bearing
deadly e-waste for the Chinese.