The world's computer graveyard

In the city of Guiyu, China, the world's largest computer junkyard receives tons of dead electronic parts a day. The e-waste is responsible for intoxicating workers and locals.


Guiyu is the global capital of electronic waste. This small town in southern China plays host to mountains of computers, keyboards and DVD players, thrown out as rubbish by people all over the world. Truckloads of e-waste arrive here before being sorted, stripped of still-useful parts and resold. Dismal work for the armies of migrant labourers who swarm to Guiyu in search of employment earning an average of four euros a day for their trouble.

“We have carried out many medical tests across the country since 2005, and we have examined the blood of Guiyu children, which is the largest e-waste dump in the world. Eighty percent of the 180 children tested have blood poisoning,“ Greenpeace’s James Choi tells us. “We have also tested the soil, water and air in Guiyu, which all contain concentrations of pollutants between 100 and 1,000 times levels recommended by the World Health Organisation.“

Guiyu is not an isolated case – there are hundreds of similar towns throughout the country. E-waste piling up not just in China, but also in the rest of the world, but it is China that has become the World’s dumping ground, the planet’s landfill for the waste of the 21st century.

“Electronic waste processing in China is very bad,“ Choi adds.  “In fact as waste increases generally in the world, China must not only face its own mounting problem, but also that of the rest of the planet, with an increase in waste coming from abroad, and that is why the situation is becoming so bad here.“

Officially, at least, many countries, such as those of the European Union, have strict bans on the export of toxic waste to China, and Beijing has also taken a number of steps to try to limit the practice. However, these measures have done very little to stop e-waste ending up in China.“

“The main reason for this is that China is still a developing country,“ Yang Dongqing from the official National Association to Combat Electronic Waste explains. “I think the best way to tackle the problem is to make manufacturers responsible for the recycling of their products. The government needs to provide the dumps which consumers can take their old electronic products to, but it should be left to the companies to ensure that they are recycled.“ The official line, but not necessarily the best solution.

Laws were enacted in 2000 prohibiting the import of any potentially toxic electronic waste, but it has achieved little. “The law is there to get manufacturers to take responsibility for their products and invest in recycling,“ Yang Dongqing tells us.

As the country waits for this minor miracle, the workers of Guiyu continue to sort and strip electronic waste for four euros a day. If you have ever thrown out a computer, it is likely to have passed through one of these labourers' hands.

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