Steve Cisler on Wed, 27 Nov 2002 22:25:26 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Waste in the wireless world

At the Tulipomania conference in 2000 I gave a talk about the dark side of
Silicon Valley (my home) and this week the San Jose Mercury News has a
series with the same title, on e-waste and China.  The first article is
here, but probably won't be freely available after a few more days.  URLs
for the other two pieces are at the end.

Posted on Sun, Nov. 24, 2002	
Poor cities in China collecting e-waste
By Karl Schoenberger
Mercury News

GUIYU, China - Here in southern China, where the gritty air stings your
throat and circuit boards pile up like dry leaves in the gutter, a group
of women squat on the sidewalk using their bare hands to pull apart the
hazardous guts of a small mountain of PCs.

This is where many of America's computers go to die.

In the Pearl River Delta less than 180 miles away, in factories as
immaculate as Guiyu is filthy, growing legions of young women work up to
18 hours a day, soldering chips and wires to motherboards, making the PC
boxes that one day will bear the name of Hewlett-Packard or Dell or IBM.

This is where the world's personal computers are born.

A computer may spend its working days in a comfortable home in Boston or
in a programmer's cubicle in San Jose. But at both ends, the dirty work
behind a typical PC's life is done in China. This is the dark secret of a
famously ``clean industry.''

At the front end, the industry relies on cheap overseas labor working long
hours to make a profit on computers even as they fall in price. At the
back end, the industry downplays its responsibility for the toxic
chemicals and metals used in its short-lived products.

In the Pearl River Delta and other regions, spotless new factories have
made China the world's premier electronics workshop by drawing young women
from the desperately poor countryside to work most of their waking hours
for 30 cents an hour. These are the kind of labor practices made notorious
by apparel factories used by Nike and the Gap in the 1990s.

In Guiyu, as in similar dumping grounds in India, Pakistan and the
Philippines, migrant workers are paid pennies to crack open and sort the
parts of monitors and circuit boards, exposing themselves to toxic metals
like lead, mercury and cadmium. They burn PVC cables to extract copper,
poisoning the air. They dip circuit boards and chips in acid to recover
small amounts of gold, inhaling the fumes and dumping the acid into a
nearby river that is dying.

``Rather than having to face the e-waste problem squarely, the United
States has made use of a convenient, and until now, hidden escape valve:
exporting the crisis to developing countries in Asia,'' the environmental
groups Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and Basel Action Network stated in
a recent report.

This fall a Mercury News reporter and photographer set out to chronicle
this complex cycle, from a computer's birth to its death, and document the
little-known story behind Silicon Valley's celebrated success. Its sheer
scale is formidable: This year, the global computer industry produced its
billionth PC, and it is expected to make 1 billion more by 2008.

Our journey begins in Guiyu, on the banks of the Lianjiang River, its
sluggish waters contaminated by shards of lead-shielded glass from
computer monitors that crossed the Pacific in containers of electronic

Could this be your old PC that Li Xiu Lan has in her hands?

Escaping poverty
>From farm towns to industrial zone

Li traveled the breadth of China to escape destitution in Sichuan
province. Here on a Guiyu sidewalk, she is pulling apart a PC carcass,
earning about 17 cents an hour as she exposes herself to a witch's brew of
chemicals without gloves, goggles or other protection.

``I don't know yet if I like this work,'' said Li, 30, who had been on the
job about one month. ``But back home there are no jobs. There is no money.
There is nothing to do.''

Guiyu stands out as a relatively prosperous pocket of activity compared
with Shantou, a coastal city that the economic boom left behind. But
incoming electronic trash litters the town, from bales of plastic monitor
shells in a back alley to heaps of cell phone casings on the sidewalk of a
grubby street where people live in concrete-block houses above recycling

A decade ago, this was an idyllic cluster of farming villages nestled
around the pristine Lianjiang River. Now the stale air in town is choked
with fumes that burn the throat -- a condition that environmental
investigators partly attribute to nighttime burning of cables to recover
their copper.

Guiyu became a symbol of the global e-waste problem after
environmentalists investigated conditions here a year ago. They released
their findings in February in a report published by the Silicon Valley
Toxics Coalition and the Seattle-based Basel Action Network.

The report, ``Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia,'' indicted
the U.S. computer industry for not taking responsibility for the toxic
substances that are built into its products. Instead of allowing the
problem to be exported, it argued, brand-name PC makers should design
products for easier recycling and should monitor the integrity of U.S.
scrap recycling. The report also rebuked the U.S.  government for failing
to ratify the 1992 Basel Convention and an amendment to the accord that
would ban exports of hazardous electronic waste. And it embarrassed China,
which had ratified both the convention and the amendment yet allowed
cities like Guiyu to subsist on imported scrap.

U.S. recycling companies were denounced for their ``dirty little secret.''
Many of these companies were collecting monitors and PCs, but instead of
recycling them under U.S. standards for hazardous-waste handling, they
were shipping the scrap to Asia, where there is a ravenous, unregulated
market and wages are dirt-cheap.

Tech export 
Most of U.S. scrap is shipped overseas

An estimated 50 percent to 80 percent of the electronic waste collected
for recycling in the Western United States ends up shipped to developing
countries, and scrap brokers in China are the biggest buyers, industry
sources say. Electronic-trash recycling is a lucrative niche in the waste

``You get paid to pick it up, and you get paid by people who want to take
it away,'' said the head of a major recycling company who asked not to be

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 1999 that only about
18 percent of all discarded computers were being recycled, the rest
presumably left in storage or going into landfills. That would amount to
about 12.8 million computers feeding the electronic-trash supply chains
this year.

The tech industry has distanced itself from the problem of e-waste
exports, but is grappling with the demand for domestic recycling

The Electronic Industries Alliance said recently that its members are
``working hard to provide Californians with several immediate options to
help with the creation of a recycling industry.''

In China, the central government has tried repeatedly to stop imports of
hazardous material over the past decade, but has been stymied by the
nation's poorly developed rule of law and the central government's limited
ability to enforce its will in outlying provinces.

Beijing cracked down in Guiyu after the state-run broadcasting network
documented the hazardous electronic-scrap recycling in 2000. Later that
year, a Hong Kong magazine published an account of Guiyu's environmental
blight, citing tests indicating alarming levels of lead in the Lianjiang

Then came ``Exporting Harm'' and its international exposure.

Owners identified
Investigators find lead, other metals

HP, IBM and Kmart were among the brand names on the tags and labels
fastened to the scrapped electronics products videotaped by the
investigators. Former owners identified on the tags included San Francisco
State University, the Los Angeles Unified School District and Xerox Corp.
A 16-inch Sony color monitor previously owned by the U.S.  Defense
Intelligence Agency found its way to Guiyu.

The Basel Action Network and undercover investigators from Greenpeace
China collected sediment and water samples from the Lianjiang for testing
by an internationally accredited testing agency in Hong Kong.  One water
sample showed levels of lead to be 190 times higher than the threshold set
by the World Health Organization for drinking water. The lab also found
sky-high levels of lead, zinc and chromium in one of two sediment samples.

The water is so filthy that Guiyu residents now rely on a town 30 miles
away for their drinking water, which rickety three-wheel trucks bring in
orange plastic tanks.

No one is studying workers in places like Guiyu for the health effects of
hazardous electronic waste, but there are anecdotal reports of
respiratory, skin and stomach problems, and an increasing number of
miscarriages in the area.

Embarrassed, Chinese officials rushed to Guiyu this year to try to clean
up the mess and place it out of sight. Police detained and interrogated a
correspondent for Japan's major economic daily, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun,
30 minutes after he arrived in April.

Authorities effectively made Guiyu off limits to foreign reporters and
Western diplomats without an official invitation and a guided tour that
did not permit sightseeing along the toxic river.

When the Mercury News explored Guiyu in late September to corroborate
environmentalists' findings, there were no signs of a police presence on
the streets. But there was considerable apprehension among the workers and
scrap brokers who agreed to talk.

Workers unloading a truck full of computer chassis chased away the Mercury
News team. ``No pictures! No pictures!'' they shouted in Mandarin.

A rough-looking scrap broker interrupted an interview with his migrant
laborers who were cooking motherboards over primitive charcoal stoves
beneath a shade tarp near the river, melting the lead solder to retrieve
chips and bits of wire.

Source of income
E-waste a measure of Guiyu's prosperity

``We don't mean to pollute the environment,'' said the broker, who
appeared to be in his early 30s, as he beckoned the journalists into a
crumbling brick warehouse.

A green plastic bin of semiconductors rested on the coffee table before
him as the man held court, chain-smoking and surrounded by a ragtag gang
of associates. He said he was a Guiyu native but would not give his name
or allow photos.

``We're just peasants trying to make a decent living,'' he said.  ``We're
afraid of the government coming here and giving us trouble, because our
business is already suffering.'' The man suggested the journalists should
leave town, ``and don't come back tomorrow.''

Another Guiyu scrap dealer, Yang Xiong Hong, said he buys his electronic
waste from dealers in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, and sells the
salvaged material to specialized traders in town. He admitted he was
burning remnants of cables and motherboards ``at a suitable location,''
but expressed no regrets.

``I can't control what goes on here,'' said the 24-year-old Yang, who is
saving money so he can move to Hong Kong and start a new life. ``If I
didn't do this work, someone else would.''

Guiyu's recycling entrepreneurs insist they process only domestically
generated computer scrap, and worry that the ban on imported waste is
harming the town's primary source of income.

Officials in Beijing issued a statement Sept. 21 saying the government had
struck a blow to the inbound traffic in electronic waste. Customs
officials seized 22 containers sent from the United States packed with
electronic contraband in Wenzhou, about 400 miles up the coast from

The statement did not mention the thousands of cargo containers unloaded
at China's 45 major seaports daily, however. Nor were the underpaid
customs and public-security officials who live off petty graft taken into
account. The statement did not explain why trucks bearing oceangoing
containers were still rumbling into Guiyu that very day.

``Things have been backed up for the past three months, and you can't
export to China now without a special connection,'' said Mark Dallura,
president of Chase Electronics, an electronic-scrap broker outside
Philadelphia. The former computer programmer said he exports material
though a Chinese agent in Los Angeles.

``We go through this about every year and a half,'' Dallura said.  ``Then
the flap dies down and it's business as usual.''
Contact Karl Schoenberger at (408) 920-5544, or kschoenberger@ (Second
in series) (Third
in series)

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