Faces of China

Heavy Metal

Fengjiang is home to a vast digital dumping ground, but e-waste could be endangering those who live and work there.

Many of the world’s discarded mobile phones, televisions and computers end up in China. The town of Fengjiang, south of Shanghai, is the site of a large recycling yard; a vast digital dumping ground where piles of electronic scrap – known as e-waste – accumulate.


by ”Jin

still behind the big cities… So more and more poor farmers [leave] their homeland to look for wealth in the big cities, doing heavy or risky work”]

A recent UN report on hi-tech rubbish predicted that by 2020, the amount of e-waste from old computers in China will have jumped by 400 per cent.

China produces more than two million tonnes of e-waste each year – second only to the US. And it remains a major destination for developed nations to export their hi-tech rubbish – despite China officially banning the import of such waste.

This has serious implications for the environment and public health.

Filmmaker Jin Huaqing followed one of the many migrant workers trying to make a living recycling discarded electrical appliances in an urban scrapyard.

Zhang Han, a farmer from a rural province, works in the Fengjiang recycling yard. Six years ago, he fell into debt when he paid for his only son’s wedding and bought him a house. Like many others he came to work in Fengjiang to pay off his debts.

Recycling used electronic goods can be a highly profitable business, but the throw-away items contain a number of toxic compounds – leaving the workers who sift through and sort the waste dangerously exposed.

Long-term health studies of China’s e-waste workers have yet to be conducted, but the health consequences involved in processing high-tech waste are believed to be many and varied.

The list of toxins found inside the average computer includes lead, which has well known toxic effects on the kidneys, nervous and reproductive system; mercury, which can contribute to brain and kidney damage, as well as being linked to birth defects; and barium, which can cause brain swelling, muscle weakness and damage to the heart, liver and spleen.

The extent of the toxins present in the air and the effect they have on the health of people living near the e-waste factories is still unclear – but both the workers and residents could be endangering their health with every breathe they take.

China has officially banned imports of electronic waste, but smuggling and lax enforcement means the hi-tech rubbish continues to flow into the country.

Even if the Chinese government could stop this flow from overseas, the amount of e-waste produced domestically will continue to grow exponentially.

China’s economic boom has created a large moneyed class eager to own the latest gadgets. Rocketing sales of mobile phones, computers and appliances will generate ever larger mountains of e-waste.

And unless safer and more efficient ways are found to collect and manage this waste, men like Han may continue to pay the price.