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Ghosts in the MACHINES

by Sherry Lee, South China Morning Post Magazine - May 12, 2002
Photo: Copyright Stefan Irvine

What was once a poor mainland farming region has become a promised land built on the computer. But Guiyu is no glittering success story: it is a dumping ground for old terminals, which are ripped apart by scavengers desperate to salvage scrap metal. It is an ecological disaster area, and the only thing it promises, save for a lucky few, is exposure to lethal toxins. Sherry Lee reports.

Photo: Copyright Stefan Irvine

Before farmer Tai Chunhua walked away from the fields of China's Jiangxi Province and headed south for Guiyu town in Guangdong, he hadn't seen a computer in his 21 years. Three years later his working day sees him surrounded by the hi-tech gadgetry of Dell, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Toshiba, Hitachi, Apple, Compaq, Epson, Xerox ... the issue of just about every big-name manufacturer of electronic office equipment on the planet.

Dressed in a black cotton shirt, healthily tanned and with neatly cut hair, Tai is a specialist in the office-equipment game. His field of expertise is toner cartridges for printers and photocopier machines. He doesn't design the cartridges. He doesn't sell them or even install them. He smashes them to bits to salvage tiny amounts of residual toner. For this dirty, polluting task he might make RMB20 (HK$18) a day. For his troubles he might also be rewarded with respiratory and skin diseases, eye infections, even cancer.

According to a report by Seattle-based environmental group the Basel Action Network (BAN), and a Californian watchdog called the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Guiyu is no glittering El Dorado; rather, it is a stinking, polluted graveyard for obsolete and broken computer equipment: "e-waste", imported as scrap primarily from the United States, but also originating in Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Europe. Titled Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, the report documents a man-made disaster.

Every year Guiyu takes in more than a million tonnes of computer waste, earning its residents, according to mainland press reports, RMB1 billion. All day, every day, mountains of wire and other equipment are burned in Guiyu's streets to obtain copper and other scrap metals. Printed circuit boards are heated over charcoal burners to liberate them of computer chips that might be reusable. The boards are then soaked in acid to extract gold, and the waste dumped alongside or in the nearby Lianjiang River. Printer cartridges are ripped apart for their toner and recyclable aluminium, steel and plastic parts. Cathode-ray tubes are hammered open for their copper yokes.

The result is that the air, land and water on which local people depend have all been poisoned. Local well water is already undrinkable, even after boiling, and fresh supplies must be trucked in from the town of Chan Dim 15 kilometres away. According to the report: "It is extremely likely that due to the presence of PVC or brominated flame retardants in wire insulation, the emissions and ashes from such burning will contain high levels of both brominated and chlorinated dioxins and furans - two of the most deadly persistent organic pollutants. It is also highly likely that cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are present in the emissions and ash."

"Compared to the rest of China, this place has more miscarriages," says Doctor Li Fai-ping, who works in the maternity ward at the local Chao Yang Yiu Fai Hospital. "Babies simply die in the wombs. There are several cases a month." She adds that the Government has done nothing to assess the damage being done by the e-waste industry. "No scientists have come here to test the effects [of the pollution on the community]. We are sent to work here, we are scared too." "The fact that nobody knows of the dangers is the most depressing thing," says BAN researcher Jim Puckett, co-author of the report.

"I don't care whether this work is harmful or not," says Tai, cracking open another cartridge and being enveloped by a cloud of toner. "As long as it makes me money."

A FOUR-HOUR DRIVE NORTHEAST OF HONG KONG, just west of the Guangdong port city of Shantou, Guiyu consists of 17 villages - including the main four of Huamei, Longgang, Xianpeng and Beilin - which lie along the black and stagnant Lianjiang River. The town's involvement in recycling began in the early 20th century, according to residents. Farmers in the poor, rural, rice-growing community, frequently suffering droughts and floods resulting in the loss of harvests, were reduced to collecting duck feathers, pig bones, metal scraps and any other waste from nearby villages that could be resold, usually for a pittance.

The Chinese Government has no record of the population of Guiyu. The National Bureau of Statistics of China has population figures for provinces and major cities, but not towns. Officials from nearby Chao Yang City say Guiyu has an indigenous population of about 100,000; about 40,000 of those people make their living from e-waste. BAN estimates another 100,000 migrant workers or more have moved into the area since the early 1990s to eke out a precarious living. Of the town's 300 businesses, more than 200 are involved in e-waste recycling. As the years have passed, locals have come to realise the dangers of the toxic trade and richer residents have moved their families to nearby towns, returning to Guiyu to work.

No one is sure how or why the e-waste trade began here, but Puckett believes Taiwanese traders first brought the scrap to Nanhai, on the Pearl River south of Guangzhou, about 10 years ago, and from there it was taken to Guiyu. "I suspect it started small. Once people realised it made more money than rice farming, the practice took off," says Puckett.

"It started seven or eight years ago," says e-waste trader Chan Sang. "Initially the goods were shipped to Guangzhou. When people in Guiyu learned the business was profitable, we started to buy from Guangzhou. Then trade expanded. Now the biggest traders, who are worth tens of million renminbi, will travel abroad to buy in Taiwan and Canada."

A 1989 United Nations environmental treaty known as the Basel Convention calls for a total block on the export of all hazardous waste from rich countries to poor for any reason, including recycling. The United States is the only developed country that has failed to ratify it. "The United States Government is one of the worst players on the global stage with respect to this issue," says Puckett. "Not only does it refuse to adopt the Basel Ban Amendment, it won't even ratify the basic Basel Convention. The official policy remains that it likes to continue to export its problems rather than solve them at home."

China has banned the import of electronic waste and ratified the Basel Convention. But occasional crackdowns have done little to halt the recycling, which thrives on strong market demand and the willingness of poor farmers to risk everything in the quest for a better life. "The waste flows in largely due to corruption by customs officials," Puckett says.

A government publicity department official from Chao Yang City, who gave his name as Choi, says: "We have targeted the problem so it is no longer an issue. Our environment department stepped up enforcement a few years ago, and has arrested some people, so there are no more such operations [in Guiyu]. We won't let people do this, the situation is very good now." He adds that there is no dumping of computer waste in rivers.

A government cleaner working the Lianjiang River disagrees. "I get four trucks of computer rubbish from here," he says, with a vehicle full of plastic and piles of burned circuit boards. "I will burn them behind the bushes after [dark]."

Despite official denials, the toxic trade continues as usual. "The gong bu [officials] take money from the operators," says one resident on condition of anonymity. "When they are arrested they give several hundred renminbi to officials and are released." Another resident adds: "Last year, when the Government came to check, the operators stopped. Once they had left, they started again."

"EVERY NIGHT AT 8.30 THEY START BURNING," says Kwok Oi-ling, 13, from a distant village. "My mother told me not to come here," she says, standing holding her bicycle.

Surrounded by fishponds in the middle of farmland, the patch of waste ground is speckled with rough houses. Close inspection reveals a carpet of black ash and half-burned wires from circuit boards, factories and telephones, all piled into small hills. The nameless settlement was created about two years ago by migrant workers who make a living cutting open wires to obtain the copper inside, then burning the waste, usually at night. Their work also leaves mountains of charcoal. There are about 100 residents, including children and babies, all of whom live in huts adjacent to where the burning is carried out. As we approach, children playing around the ash heaps retreat into their houses and their parents stare suspiciously at us. They remain silent when asked what they do here; then a boy of about five says: "We burn cables."

Later, a man in his 20s sitting outside a hut cutting open wires says, "I am sorry, but we are told not to talk." Next to him is a man in his 50s, a former farmer who refuses to give his name but is prepared to speak. As with other migrant workers, rural poverty forced them here, he says. "We could barely farm enough to eat, and had no money," he adds.

Last month, he left his wife and children to find a job here. His one-bedroom home is cramped; he has one kerosene burner and two stools. Just outside his home is his work place: three low stools and a pool of wires and cables. Everyday he sits with another worker, toiling through the wires. One cuts them into two, the other extracts the copper. At night, they burn the waste: an act banned by authorities.

The man earns RMB18 a day, but his job means living in pollution. Every day he inhales the air, and drinks and washes with ash-contaminated water pumped from underground. "I am poor, I have no choice," he says, cooking pork washed in that water.


Photo: Copyright Stefan Irvine

At 7am every day, Tai Chunhua starts work among hills of printer cartridges at a roadside yard. On an average day he crouches among the e-waste until 5.30pm, breaking open printer cartridges with a screwdriver and using a paint brush to collect any toner he can find. Scratched by sharp metal or plastic components, his charcoal-black hands often bleed. "Many labourers suffer from allergies after working with the toner for a long time," he says. He wears no mask. "When the powder comes out, I stop breathing," he adds. That is his only defence.

According to Material Safety Data Sheets provided by Xerox and Canon, although carbon black and other toner ingredients are not intrinsically toxic, the BAN report states that they can cause lung and respiratory irritations. Other reports say carbon black is a possible human carcinogen. Xerox, Canon and other manufacturers stress that normal use of black toner will cause no health problems. BAN points out that what takes place in Guiyu could not be considered normal.

Poverty forced Tai down the pollution road. "Life in Jiangxi is very poor, there isn't much work to do," he says. "My family is poor, we don't have money - if we did I wouldn't have come here." He tries to make light of his toil. On opening a cartridge, the dark powder flutters up to his face. "It is minor matter, no problem," he says with a quick laugh.


Photo: Copyright Stefan Irvine

Chan Kwong-sang, 25, from Guiyu, has amassed a fortune built on the town's mountains of scrap computers. In 1993 the young farmer borrowed RMB3,000 from an uncle and started as a "walking boy", buying and selling between e-waste traders. Soon he was earning more than RMB20,000 a month. Despite having a primary-school education only, he is now one of Guiyu's biggest traders, owning six yards and land he rents to migrant workers. He also has a large house in Guiyu, and another in Shantou, to his name. He estimates his total worth at RMB10 million.

About 60 per cent of his waste, which he buys by telephone through a trader in Taiwan, originates in the US. The junk is shipped directly from the US to Shandong Province before being taken on a five-hour truck journey to Guiyu. Chan also buys dud computers from closer to home. "Eighty to 90 per cent of Hong Kong's old computers come here," he claims.

But he admits there is a big price to pay. "I don't feel good about it," he says, a little ashamed, gazing at a polluted black river. "But look over there," he adds. "We had no roads before, only paths. Now we have so many large roads. I contributed RMB10,000 to build one. And I buy high-quality white rice to give to beggars at New Year." Asked if he believes he can absolve himself for causing the pollution from which he has profited, he pauses and shakes his head. "No," he admits, his four-year-old son cradled in his arms. "I can't compensate for it."


Photo: Copyright Stefan Irvine

Every morning, former farmer Tam Heung, 38, turns up at a Beilin recycling business to work on printed circuit boards. Once dominated by farmland, the village is now filled with low-rises, small shelters and yards. Stacks of computer components are scattered along the road. Circuit boards pile up in small hills outside shelters and in yards. The thick, pungent odour of hot plastic and molten solder wafts through the stale air.

Women and girls on the industry frontline sit on low stools lining every street. They place circuit boards over coal-fired grills, which melt the solder holding computer chips in place. The chips are then plucked off with pliers and placed in plastic buckets before those that can be resold are separated from those to be dumped.

The waste boards are taken by truck to be stripped by acid for precious-metal, then left on the banks of the Lianjiang. In places the government has covered boards with sandy soil and planted bamboo on top. But the piles of acid-soaked circuit boards poke through.

Tam works with two other women, also from Hunan. To hide them from prying eyes, their boss has built a bamboo fence in front of their shelter. A slow-moving fan makes a half-hearted attempt to disperse the toxic fumes. "The smoke smells terribly," says Tam. "Without the fans it's even worse. In summer I can hardly stand it and often feel faint and nauseous."

According to Puckett, daily exposure to such fumes is likely to be extremely damaging, adding that lead, also released, is among the most potent neurological toxins known. Tam says she has heard "many workers have become sick" and some have lung diseases.

She has worked constantly during her eight years in Guiyu, regularly moving between yards, and greatly improved the lot of her family: it now has a television set, and Tam's three children, from 12 to 16, all go to school. But she adds: "Money aside, there is nothing good here. The environment is terrible: it is too polluted, the water is filthy. I don't know how it will affect my health in the future. I am worried."

Just across the road an expressionless Mr Li watches the fumes rising from Tam's workplace. Another former farmer, he complains that his two daughters have nowhere to play but among the e-waste. "Our air was very fresh before," he recalls sadly inside his shop. With no money to move, he is trapped. He dares not complain in public for fear his neighbours will vent their wrath him. But he says: "I have heard cases of people failing their army medicals because of lung problems."

On the street, an elderly farmer says angrily: "Most children in Beilin have lung diseases. Before, the air here was good; now it is the worst place."


Photo: Copyright Stefan Irvine

By day, Yeung Hung-sang, 23, dresses smartly and races between Guiyu villages on his motorcycle, buying and selling computer chips. At night he returns to his home in Chan Dim. He is one of thousands of comparatively affluent junk merchants who have fled Guiyu. "Of course I don't live here," he says as workers nearby burn wire from which copper has been extracted. "Are you joking? The pollution is just too great, we had to move."

Once a rice farmer, he recalls that he couldn't farm enough to eat because the fields had been reduced to accommodate the growing population. Heavy taxes also took their toll. "Starting in 1990 we had to pay more than RMB100 a year," he recalls, adding that all his friends had also quit farming. "If we didn't pay, they would stop our children going to school."

In 1993, he began to hear stories about a 30-something man who started out with a few ren-minbi and became a multi-millionaire. "He was my idol, I wanted to be like him," Yeung says. So he used RMB3,000 to buy some stock and started his business, contributing to the pollution that finally forced him to flee his home. Today his e-waste business employs 10 workers. Looking at the field, he says, "Now, even if we wanted to farm again, we couldn't go back."


Photo: Copyright Stefan Irvine

Under a Lianjiang River bridge in Shimei Village, Guiyu, Chow Kam-hok, 63, dressed in a blue, Mao-style jacket, crouches with a bamboo basket, which he uses while fossicking for precious metals like an old-time gold-panner. Holding the edge of the round basket, his rough hands are soaked continually in the malodorous black water. Sometimes he uses hands still wet with the foul water to light a cigarette.

Formerly an Anhui Province farmer, he recalls the hard life in his home village. "I worked from morning to night, and I could still barely earn enough money for food," he says, adding that taxes of RMB200 a year forced him to leave. "When we couldn't pay they fined us, or they would come to our houses to take our goats, cows and chickens. After all was gone, we couldn't make a living." So Chow scratches away at the end of the e-waste food chain, scouring the river for metals. He usually finds enough to fill three large bags a day, making him RMB12 to RMB15, although occasionally he goes home with nothing. His son, Chow Lan-ho, 31, came to Guiyu to dismantle computer parts two years ago, and father followed. "My business is very small," he says, smiling. "My business has no costs." Asked if he thinks he is polluting the environment, he nods.

Downstream, a group of women wash their clothes in the inky water. "We cover the odour by using a lot of washing powder," says one, who works in a clothes factory.


Photo: Copyright Stefan Irvine

Chong Yik-wah, 13, of Beilin, wears a sweater decorated with cartoon characters. She loved to sing as a little girl. "I sang very well," she says, smiling. That was before the e-waste trade began to suffocate her village. "The air is so polluted I often feel pain in my throat," she says, standing beside a sandy road where women recycle circuit boards. "My voice has turned hoarse. I can't sing now. Sometimes I can't even breath through my nose."

In September, Chong says, a medical check showed that more than 100 of the 1,000 pupils at her school had respiratory problems. Chong suffers and benefits from the pollution: both parents have been recycling circuit boards for three years.

One day, Chong remembers, she asked, "Papa, why do you do this?" Her father replied, "If I don't, how can I send you to school? It is dirty, but I have to do this to raise three children." Her mother added, "Before, we didn't even have enough to eat, we only had one bucket of rice a month and had to eat sweet potatoes. There were many taxes and we couldn't make a living. We have no choice." And Chong was silent.

Copyright (c) 2002 South china Morning Post Publishers Ltd ( All rights reserved.

Pictures by Stefan Irvine

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