There's little doubt that China is heavily polluted. This was showcased at the Beijing Olympics, which were held under constant fear of smog. The country is also the world's largest CO2 emitter.
China and the U.S. have long played the blame game over who is to blame for the other's pollution. NASA studies have shown that as much as 15 percent of the U.S. air pollution is simply smog blown over from China. The Chinese, however, say that it’s Western demand that is fueling the production and pollution.
However, the worst pollution problems for China may not be high up in the sky, but much closer to Earth, with the soaring problem of e-waste. DailyTech was among the first in the tech community to chronicle the growing problem of tech trash.
The U.S. and other industrialized nations are fueling this problem by shipping countless tons of electronics trash overseas to the lowest bidder. This trade occurs despite laws trying to stop it and the efforts of many large American electronics firms to stop the practice.
CBS News' "60 Minutes" is the latest to take an in-depth look into the epidemic. Its report focuses on China, perhaps the nation with the worst tech-trash importing problem.
In China, the deluge of tech trash has led to gang-controlled electronics wastelands characterized by massive landfills, toxic water supplies and low laying clouds of choking gases.
Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist and authority on waste management at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and contributor to the report, describes the situation stating, "Lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, polyvinyl chlorides. All of these materials have known toxicological effects that range from brain damage to kidney disease to mutations, cancers. The problem with e-waste is that it is the fastest-growing component of the municipal waste stream worldwide."
Many of the chemicals which help make electronics less likely to burn, malfunction, or otherwise go awry, according to the medical community, can cause serious side effects on the human body, if improperly disposed. And with 130,000 computers thrown out every day in the U.S. and 100 million cell phones thrown away annually, it’s easy to see where China gets its tech-trash.
Many citizens in America are eager to help and endure long lines to submit their old electronics for recycling. However, understanding of what happens to these components is hazy at best. Says one man, waiting in line to recycle a computer, "Well my assumption is they break it apart and take all the heavy metals out and then try to recycle some of the stuff that's bad."
It turns out many recycling companies are shipping the trash overseas to make a quick profit, at the expense of polluting the environment, and exposing people in countries like China to deadly health problems.
The "60 Minutes" special looked at Executive Recycling, of Englewood, Colorado, which claimed to recycle all its tech trash in the U.S. Its CEO Brandon Richter stated of shipping tech trash overseas, "Well, you know, they've got low-income labor over there. So obviously they don't have all of the right materials, the safety equipment to handle some of this material."
Well it turns out that Mr. Richter and the company -- despite its assertion that "Your e-waste is recycled properly, right here in the U.S. - not simply dumped on somebody else" -- were guilty of outright lies. "60 Minutes" tracked shipping containers leaving the companies facilities, which it inspected and found to be full of cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors, which can have large amounts of lead and other chemicals. The company was shipping the containers to Hong Kong, a common stopping point before smuggling the containers into China.
The show tracked the electronics to a town in southern China known as Guiyu, which CBS calls a "sort of Chernobyl of electronic waste". The town was overrun with corrupt officials, who tried to fool the reporters with a faked shop and then forced them out of town with a police escort. Risking life and limb and returning to the town, the reporters found people melting boiling lead off components, inhaling massive amounts of lead vapor. Others were using a gold-extracting acid recipe not used in the western world since the Middle Ages, due to its toxic effects.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, though very sad that Guiyu, which has the world's highest concentration of cancer-causing dioxins has six times the miscarriage rate as normal. And seven out of ten children in the town have higher than acceptable lead blood levels, something that has been causing severe mental problems and loss of fertility. Says a CBS reporter, "These people are not just working with these materials, they're living with them. They're all around their homes."
Mr. Hershkowitz explains, "The situation in Guiyu is actually pre-capitalist. It's mercantile. It reverts back to a time when people lived where they worked, lived at their shop. Open, uncontrolled burning of plastics. Chlorinated and brominated plastics is known worldwide to cause the emission of polychlorinated and polybrominated dioxins. These are among the most toxic compounds known on earth. We have a situation where we have 21st century toxics being managed in a 17th century environment."
After getting jumped by thugs, hired by the local mayor, CBS narrowly escaped with evidence of the dire situation in hand.
Back in the states, the reporters confronted Executive Recycling, stating, "This is a photograph from your yard, the Executive Recycling yard. We followed this container to Hong Kong."
Mr. Richter responded, "Ok."
CBS followed, "And I wonder why that would be?"
Mr. Richter responded, "Hmm. I have no clue."
Several emphatic denials later, Mr. Richter stated, "I know this is your job. But, unfortunately, you know, when you attack small business owners like this and you don't have all your facts straight, it's unfortunate, you know?"
The facts remain indisputable, though -- CBS had solid video evidence that Executive Recycling was illegally smuggling tech trash overseas for a quick profit. And in a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, a sting set up with Chinese officials, confirmed this. It also found 42 other major tech recycling firms from all across America, more than willing to do the same thing.