Natalie Behring, E-was, from PRIVATE 37 – an Ecological Question
Guiyu, near China’s Southeastern Coast is the centre of an uncontrolled environmental disaster. Here and in several nearby townships, electronic waste, most of it imported, is broken up in small workshops. It’s a version of outsourcing that saves wealthier countries the high cost of disposing of their electronic trash. In this part of China recycling e-waste is apparently free of any environmental or health and safety regulation. The result is a landscape that varies from filthy to apocalyptic. In small workshops and yards and in the open countryside workers dismember the detritus of modernization. Armed mostly with small hand tools they take apart old computers, monitors, printers, video and DVD players, photocopying machines, telephones and phone chargers, music speakers, car batteries and microwave ovens. Chinese law forbids the importation of electronic waste and Beijing is also a signatory to the Basel Convention, an international treaty banning the shipment of e-waste from the developed to the developing world. But so far official prohibitions have been about as effective as the official banners urging environmental protection that flap in the breeze above the trash congested streets of Guiyu. A rash of similar waste sites has broken out further up the Coast.
Enforcement is difficult because China’s economic boom is driving price hikes on the world’s metals markets. Raging domestic demand has China sucking in metals in any form it can. Take copper as an example. In 2003 China passed the US as the world’s biggest consumer of copper. A year later it was eating up almost 50% more copper than the US, and three times more than Japan. In such a market the demand for scrap metals, including electronic waste, is enormous.