Tue, Nov 20, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Electronics recycling is a toxic business for China

By Christopher Bodeen  /  AP , GUIYU, CHINA

The air smells acrid from squat gas burners that sit outside homes, melting wires to recover copper and cooking computer motherboards to release gold. Migrant workers in filthy clothing smash picture tubes by hand to recover glass and electronic parts, releasing as much as 3kg of lead dust.

For five years, environmentalists and the media have highlighted the danger to Chinese workers who dismantle a large portion of the world's junked electronics. Yet a visit to this small southeastern town regarded as the heartland of "e-waste" disposal shows little has improved. In fact, the problem is growing worse because of China's own contribution.

China now produces more than 910,000 tonnes of e-waste each year, said Jamie Choi, a toxics campaigner with Greenpeace China in Beijing. That adds up to roughly 5 million TV sets, 4 million refrigerators, 5 million washing machines, 10 million mobile phones and 5 million personal computers, Choi said.

"Most e-waste in China comes from overseas, but the amount of domestic e-waste is on the rise," he said.

This ugly business is driven by pure economics. For the West, where safety rules drive up the cost of disposal, it is as much as 10 times cheaper to export the waste to developing countries. In China, poor migrants from the countryside willingly endure the health risks to earn a few yuan, exploited by profit-hungry entrepreneurs.

International agreements and European regulations have made a dent in the export of old electronics to China, but loopholes -- and sometimes bribes -- allow many to skirt the requirements. And only a sliver of the electronics sold get returned to manufacturers such as Dell and Hewlett Packard for safe recycling.

Upwards of 90 percent ends up in dumps that observe no environmental standards, where shredders, open fires, acid baths and broilers are used to recover gold, silver, copper and other valuable metals while spewing toxic fumes and runoff into the nation's skies and rivers.

Accurate figures about the shady and unregulated trade are hard to come by. However, experts agree that it is overwhelmingly a problem of the developing world. They estimate about 70 percent of the 18 million to 45 million tonnes of electronic waste produced globally each year is dumped in China, with most of the rest going to India and poor African nations.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, it is 10 times cheaper to export e-waste than to dispose of it at home.

Imports slip into China despite a Chinese ban and Beijing's ratification of the Basel Convention, an international agreement that outlaws the trade. Industry monitor Ted Smith said one US exporter told him all that was needed to get shipments past Chinese customs officials was a crisp US$100 bill taped to the inside of each container.

"The central government is well aware of the problems but has been unable or unwilling to really address it," said Smith, senior strategist with the California-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which focuses on the electronics industry.

The EU bans such exports, but Smith and others say smuggling is rife, largely due to the lack of measures to punish rule breakers. China, meanwhile, allows the import of plastic waste and scrap metal, which many recyclers use as an excuse to send old electronics there.

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