Q&A: E-waste goes to post-recycling afterlife

Modern information-age society produces a massive amount of computer, mobile phone and battery waste every year.

Al Jazeera speaks with Michael Zhao, managing editor of China Green at the Asia Society in New York City, about his project E-Waste – Afterlife: An unsightly tour of our lovely gadgets’ second life as they wreak havoc on environment and public health.

In our modern information-age society, the list of electronics owned by affluent people seems to grow ever higher. What items do you personally own that will eventually end up as e-waste?

Michael Zhao: Multiple computers (desktop and laptop), cell phones (iPhone for the US and an Android for China trips), printers, hard drives, cameras, TVs (an old one as a computer monitor extension), then batteries and chargers for various types of gadgets.

Theoretically, all these will eventually end up as e-waste. But I do hope that I will be able to hang on to them as long as possible, given my first-hand experience with how people deal with this stuff back in China and how it’s wreaking havoc on the environment.

Is it true that every year the US disposes of 30 million computers and Europe throws out 100 million cellular phones? How does one conceptualise the fact that 40 million tonnes of e-waste are produced annually?

Michael Zhao: Accurate data are very hard to come by and even though I see sometimes figures from the US Environmental Protection Agency, it could still be quite unreliable.

Here is a good way to visualize the amount of e-waste the US exports each year: 5,200 containers (each 40×8.5 ft). If you stack them up, they go eight miles high, which is taller than Mount Everest and higher than where commercial flights travel.

What are the most useful materials that can be extracted from e-waste?

Michael Zhao: Gold, copper, silver are some of the most common by products of this e-waste “recycling”. And in China, maybe elsewhere as well, people dust off the used chips and other components, then refurbish and sell them as new parts, often back to the US.

A company based in Long Island, New York, once got paranoid as one of their clients, a defence contractor, found bad parts in their supplies, thus prompting them to set up an operation to test all components from China. I heard recently that this firm suspended all supplies from China, period.

Plastic can also be a commonly re-used material in this business, remolded into raw blocks to feed lower-tier manufacturing industries in China, such as shoes or toys.

Raw material extraction from e-waste is done in some developed countries but is said to be far cheaper in “Third World” places such as China, India, and parts of West Africa. Which countries are most efficient at acquiring the old machines and then re-selling the extracted materials?

Michael Zhao: I am not sure whether raw material extraction from e-waste is cheaper done in developed countries than it is in the “Third World”.

But the other factor is that there are just a couple of these advanced plants in the whole world – one I visited in Roseville, California and another in Eindhoven, Holland.

The total volume that these few plants process cannot amount to a majority of the world’s total output, thus leaving a lot of e-waste stream to China and poorer nations, where it is indeed environmentally devastating and inefficient to “recycle”.

As a lot of e-waste brokers are actually exporters, they can offer a lot more money than the Roseville plant can offer. Thus there’s a strong financial incentive to dump e-waste overseas.

I don’t know whether any country is really efficient but I’d say those few plants are the real heroes in this industry. And they are being good corporate citizens while competing head-on with a massive supply chain that feeds the crude, inefficient, manual “recycling”.

If China has banned e-waste imports, then why does the country remain the top destination for such refuse?

Michael Zhao: This is largely a corruption issue. On the one hand, top officials in Beijing don’t want these junk materials to go into China and pollute their local environment and harm communities – but local officials think the opposite way.

And when these containers go through Hong Kong, customs officials in Shenzhen, the border point into China, mostly turn a blind eye as the e-waste exporters stick $100 bills on top of each container. The customs officials know what that means.

I was told that this is a standard practice, and the reason why almost all the shipments could just go into China hassle-free.

Have you visited places such as Guiyu in south China? How would you describe the impact of e-waste on people employed in that sector?

Michael Zhao: Yes, I have visited Guiyu myself and I think it’s the worst place I’ve ever been to. I am sure that most people are aware that their jobs are dangerous and the fumes they inhale into their lungs are devastating to their health.

As most of these people aren’t well educated, they still think these jobs are good ones and as long as they can make a living and feed their families, it’s still a better deal than having no work.

But I am pretty sure that in ten years time they will have to deal with health problems which will become a huge financial strain on these poor families. The waterways are also polluted severely, sometimes running black or dark brown like streams or ponds of soy sauce.

And you could see piles of ink cartridges, keyboards and other computer parts lining the banks of small creeks. The air is also choking and you could smell circuitry a few miles before you get to the town. The whole area is very heavy with all the signs of e-waste “recycling,” from smell to sight.

What are the various environmental effects of dismantling e-waste?

Michael Zhao: The worst part is that lots of children are also being affected. A research team from the Shantou University School of Medicine has been doing checkups on children from these e-waste worker families and they found the levels of lead in their blood are 2-3 times higher than healthy samples from elsewhere in China.

And, as we all know, lead poisoning – especially at an early age – can do severe neural damage to the body. This has an impact on the children’s education and their careers.

They may find their memories not as good as other kids, or in even worse cases, they could end up not functioning as healthy human beings at all.

There are also other problems such as skin diseases and respiratory illnesses resulting from dealing with e-waste. Although this industry has brought wealth to the bosses involved, it promises a hidden health disaster in the near future.
It seems that this activity is a natural part of the informal economy. Has criminalisation of e-waste processing just driven the activity further underground?

Michael Zhao: It may seem underground, but it is not really. when I visited in late 2006 as a total stranger, I could tell from looking at all the trash piles in front of all the houses that something was a little wrong.

But I heard before then that the workshops were more open, doing all the dirty work outside without any fear. And recently I heard the local government also wants to transition from this dirty industry and try to build advanced facilities, like the one in Roseville, California.

But I think this is going to take a long time, as it will cost a lot of money to get all the equipment. For now, I think the situation is pretty much the same as when I visited a few years ago. Yet I hope things will change down the road.

Follow Ben Piven on Twitter: @BenPiven

Source: Al Jazeera