The High-Tech Trashing of China

The proliferation of consumerism, rapid technological growth and shortening life span of electronic products has made electronic waste (e-waste) the fastest growing waste stream in the twenty-first century. It is estimated that around 30-50 million tonnes are produced each year, a figure that is constantly growing and stretching the capabilities of existing waste disposal structures to their limits. E-waste is not only extremely hazardous and complex in nature, but also costly to dispose of in an environmentally friendly manner. Thus, in order to alleviate the pressure caused by the ever-increasing levels of e-waste, the ‘Global South’ has conveniently become the world’s ‘digital dumping site’; receiving more than 80 per cent of the world’s yearly total of e-waste production (Greenpeace, 2009).

A growing amount of under-developed and historically marginalised areas have suffered from the unfettered influx of e-waste, causing extensive environmental degradation and adversely affecting the wellbeing of millions of people. Although there is no universal system in place to track or trace the global movement of e-waste, though Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Basel Action Network (BAN) and Greenpeace have collaboratively identified the main recipients of these hazardous exports, revealing Southeast Asia and Africa as the main destinations. The illicit dumping of e-waste has particularly affected Asia, with China being one of the main recipients, receiving more than 70 per cent of the global annual production, the highest proportion of all. The growing volume of illicit dumping of electrical appliances has become a pressing issue in China, especially in coastal regions, specifically Guiyu in Guangdong Province.

Image courtesy of Anna, ©2009, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Anna, ©2009, some rights reserved

Since 1995, Guiyu has become one of the largest informal recycling sites, infamously known as the ‘World’s E-waste Terminal’.  It receives more than 1.6 millions tonnes of e-waste each year and employs over 100,000 people, roughly 80 per cent of Guiyu’s total population. The informal recycling of e-waste is a lucrative business, providing employment for whole households, including women and children. However, recycling e-waste is a high-risk and dangerous business. While it is important to extract the valuable components of e-waste for recycling, especially given their finite nature, the process can have harmful consequences if not conducted properly. In order to separate the valuable and re-usable components of e-waste, they must be separated from the glass, plastic and toxic materials they are attached to. Rich and industrialised countries employ high tech procedures that have minimal impact on the environment. On the other hand, developing countries and informal recycling operations use primitive and rudimentary methods such as manual disassembly, open-air burning or dissolution in strong acid. In the case of Guiyu, these methods are extremely harmful, both to the local environment and to its inhabitants.

In Guiyu, the air, soil and groundwater are so severely tainted that, since 1996, the town has been forced to truck water in from Ninjing, which is located thirty kilometers away. Unfortunately, this has not spared the inhabitants of Guiyu from suffering of a high prevalence of health issues, ranging from headaches, nausea, insomnia, and hypomnesia (impaired memory), to name but a few. Recently, the Greenpeace Research Laboratories ran tests on the local river, and found its acidity levels were high enough to dissolve a penny in mere hours. These examples all reveal that the huge influx of e-waste and the primitive methods used by the informal recycling sector to process and deal with it are to blame for the extreme degradation of the area.

The ratification of the Basel Convention and implementation of numerous national regulations since 2000 has unfortunately had little impact in China. The 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is the most comprehensive attempt to control the movement and disposal of hazardous wastes across international borders and was drafted following the numerous instances of extensive dumping of hazardous waste in Africa during the 1980s. It provides a global regulatory framework, and was adopted to curtail the transfer of toxic wastes from industrial countries to the developing world for disposal. However, the Basel Convention has been ‘grossly inadequate’ at curtailing global e-waste trafficking, and mitigating China’s e-waste issue. While China has ratified both the Basel Convention and its BAN Amendment, the United States’ refusal to ratify the convention has severely undermined the success of this multilateral agreement. Primarily because the United States and OECD member-states have been revealed as the main e-waste generators and exporters, they are responsible for the grim ecological situation in Guiyu and elsewhere.

It has been acknowledged that in order for regulatory policies to be successful, they require effective enforcement and monitoring mechanisms.  Currently, both China and the international society lack such mechanisms. In the case of the Basel Convention, the introduction of stricter laws and regulations have paradoxically contributed to the blossoming of the informal sector as the cost of legal and safe disposal of electrical items has increased. The rising cost combined with the lack of definitional consensus on ‘e-waste’, both in quantification and identification, has largely contributed to facilitate the illicit business rather than curb it.

The issue of e-waste is only going to escalate as society’s insatiable appetite for electronic goods, compounded by expanding middle classes around the world, does. Although China has signed and ratified the Basel Convention and further implemented a number of domestic policies to tackle its e-waste issues, these have been unsuccessful. E-waste continues to be illegally imported, through Hong Kong, and end up in informal recycling sites such as Guiyu. The issue of e-waste, like most environmental issues, requires collective and comprehensive multilateral action from all actors involved. Therefore, in order to be successfully tackled, e-waste must be recognised as a global issue, that cannot just be exported abroad and ignored. Ratification of the Basel Convention by the world’s major e-waste producing states, like the United States would be a step in the right direction, though today this is unfortunately not much more than wishful thinking.

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