DeeDee Halleck on Sun, 16 Dec 2007 16:38:54 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> E-Waste

Please post.

Thought net-times might be interested in this.



E-Wasting Away in China

by Terry J. Allen,
In These Times column
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 U.S. 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 the town?s families more than 30,000 people who recover  
copper, gold and other valuable materials from 15 million tons of e- 

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 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 substantial  
profits. U.S. exporters not only avoid the cost of environmentally  
sound disposal at home, but they also turn a buck 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 copper 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 ratified by every industrialized nation except the  
United States.

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-dollar  
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 cultivable land.

The trade fleet then filled up with opium and pushed it to 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  
latest, lightest, biggest, smallest, fastest, trendiest items. And  
even if you are not hooked on the latest gadgets, repairs or upgrades  
are impractical. 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.

Terry Allen
phone  802.229.0303
cell       212.691.1145

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