Where does all our e-waste go? Most of us try to avoid thinking about where our waste ends up because we all know that if it isn’t recycled, it’s burnt (to produce harmful gasses into the air) or dumped in a landfill somewhere that we hope we will never have to see. There is a sad truth to the end of life of our electronics, a truth that the world needs to know, embrace and change.
Imagine having to face, touch and handle this waste, every day of your youth, and perhaps, adulthood. Every day of your life, your vision is filled with mountains of scrap computers and home appliances, printed circuit boards and tangled wires– Miles and miles of old electronics. Imagine having to raise your children to scavenge through heaps of trash for precious metals, without any protection; and while they are digging through dangerous mountains of electronic waste for parts to exchange for a living, there are other scavengers around, burning wires and plastic, producing incredibly toxic gas that your children inevitably have to inhale. It is no longer a matter of choice anymore. For many people around the world, this is a reality. Digging through e-waste dangerously while inhaling volumes of toxic gas is a way of life, as much of an oxymoron it seems.
image source: greenpeace.org
Above is an image of somebody’s child. She is not wearing any gloves, her hands dirtied from digging through dumped electronics. There may be some sharp edges here and there, and maybe some loose screws, but that won’t stop her tiny hands from digging, because whatever precious metals she may find will ultimately help to feed her family. At home here in Singapore, some of us won’t even allow our children near certain home appliances– some not even a pair of scissors. In E-Waste processing towns such as Guiyu, in Guangdong, China, health and safety are sacrificed in exchange for a livelihood.
The Unseen Value in E-Waste
Some of us in the first world reading this article using our smartphones may be wondering, but what value could there be in collecting old electronics? Why go through such great lengths to dig for resources in e-waste dumps? Dumped electronics with just a few broken parts may not be functioning anymore, but there is another form of value in this waste. Within most electronics, are printed circuit boards rich and embedded with metals such as iron. aluminium, and sometimes even gold. To extract the metal is an extremely dangerous process. The plastic boards have to be cooked and burnt to extract metals such as copper and aluminium. To liberate gold, some may even have to dip the boards into acid baths. The metals, when extracted can then be sold.
Especially with the amount of E-Waste dumped in Guiyu, the little components of gold and other precious metals could amount to kilos and kilos, making this toxic metal scavenging industry a multi-billion dollar one. The amount of gold that has yet to be found can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
Guiyu China used to be a rice farming village. Now, the soil is far too contaminated for grass to even thrive. Guiyu is officially the largest E-Waste dumping site in China, and quite possibly, the world. Here, electronic waste from countries around South East Asia, and even from within China are being imported into Guiyu to be processed. In the act of extracting and liberating precious metals from printed circuit boards and plastics, heavy metals such as chromium, lead and tin seep deep into the soil, contaminating the ground water. So much so that the water in Guiyu has 2,400 times the World Health Organization’s threshold for lead content. Water is so polluted in Guiyu, clean water has to be exported in from other places.
Lead flows through the blood of the children in Guiyu, as a result of the pollution. Children under the age of 10 are especially susceptible to lead poisoning, which is a slow and painful process towards death. Lead poisoning may lead to fatal and irreversible damage on the still developing brains of children. Lead poisoning may also have other adverse effects such as nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss, and the damage can even lead up to children developing mental disorders and learning disabilities.
This is the great consequence of improper disposal of e-waste. **Illegal** disposal of e-waste. The capitalistic industry’s lack of concern for the environment coupled with humankind’s own carelessness has created this dystopian reality of an e-waste nightnare. Just so you know, Guiyu is just one of tens of thousands of E-waste processing villages. We don’t think much before we mass produce and dump. We don’t think much at all.
information compiled from the following websites