Electronic Waste Dump of The World: Guiyu, China
Guiyu in the Shantou region of China is a huge electronic waste processing area. It is often referred to as the “e-waste capital of the world.” The city employs over 150,000 e-waste workers that work through 16-hour days disassembling old computers and recapturing whatever metals and parts they can reuse or sell. The thousands of individual workshops employ laborers to snip cables, pry chips from circuit boards, grind plastic computer cases into particles,and dip circuit boards in acid baths to dissolve the lead, cadmium, and other toxic metals. Others work to strip insulation from all wiring in an attempt to salvage tiny amounts of copper wire. Uncontrolled burning, disassembly, and disposal causes a variety of environmental problems such as groundwater contamination, atmospheric pollution, or even water pollution either by immediate discharge or due to surface runoff (especially near coastal areas), as well as health problems including occupational safety and health effects among those directly and indirectly involved, due to the methods of processing the waste.
Only limited investigations have been carried out on the health effects of Guiyu's poisoned environment. One of them was carried out by Professor HuoXia, of the Shantou University Medical College, which is an hour and a half's drive from Guiyu. She tested 165 children for concentrations of lead in their blood. 82% of the Guiyu children had blood/lead levels of more than 100. Anything above that figure is considered unsafe by international health experts. The average reading for the group was 149.
High levels of lead in young children's blood can impact IQ and the development of the central nervous system. The highest concentrations of lead were found in the children of parents whose workshop dealt with circuit boards and the lowest was among those who recycled plastic.
Six of the many villages in Guiyu specialize in circuit-board disassembly, seven in plastics and metals reprocessing, and two in wire and cable disassembly. About a year ago the environmental group Greenpeace sampled dust, soil, river sediment and groundwater in Guiyu where e-waste recycling is done. They found soaring levels of toxic heavy metals and organic contaminants in both places. Lai Yun, a campaigner for the group found "over 10 poisonous metals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, in Guiyu town."
Guiyu is only one example of digital dumps but similar places can be found across the world such as Asia and Africa. With amounts of e-waste growing rapidly each year urgent solutions are required.While the waste continues to flow into digital dumps like Guiyu there are measures that can help reduce the flow of e-waste.
A preventative step that major electronics firms should take is to remove the worst chemicals in their products in order to make them safer and easier to recycle. It is important that all companies take full responsibility for their products and, once they reach the end of their useful life, take their goods back for re-use or safely recycle them.
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“The war was won on both sides: by the Vietnamese on the ground, by the Americans in the electronic mental space. And if the one side won an ideological and political victory, the other made Apocalypse Now and that has gone right around the world.”
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—Robert Frost (18741963)