The computer you’re using now was likely put together in a factory in Guangdong, and it will likely end up there when you throw it out. Not just computers, almost everything with valuable metals inside it gets exported to China: video game consoles, lighting components, transformers, hardware, and more.
Up to 80 percent of American electronics waste, and, as of 2005, 47 percent of European waste, is exported to developing countries. China is the leading importer of this trash. In 2008, China imported 68 percent of the world’s scrap copper.
In villages nearby the port city of Guangzhou, migrant workers take apart the trash to get valuable metals out of it. Qingyuan city, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Guangzhou, processes over 2,500,000 tons of trash each year, according to a December 2012 article in Southern Window. Visiting the village of Ding’an, about 17 kilometers (11 mi) south of Qingyuan, this is what I found.
Ding’an is one of a string of villages along Provincial Road 269 that are full of courtyards piled high with trash. According to Southern Window, there are over 1,000 companies doing metal extraction here. You can find anything here:
even the kitchen sink.
Workers inside the courtyards sift through the garbage, sorting it and extracting the valuable materials by hammering, burning, or blow torching. This man runs wires through a machine to separate the metal:
Migrant workers come to Ding’an from China’s less developed southwestern provinces like Guizhou, Sichuan, and Hunan. Especially Hunan. Most of the workers I spoke with came from Hunan. Because it was a Sunday, one group of workers was playing mah jong inside a room in their boss’s complex. They said they had heard about Ding’an from friends back home.
Migrants live in small homes made of brick and corrugated metal arranged side by side. A unit in one of these complexes costs 100 yuan per month, according to one resident.
Unlike some migrant work towns, Ding’an is bustling with children playing on the streets. As I talk with the group of resting workers from Hunan, their children speak to me in English. “Hello, what is your name?” says a girl who is studying English at a primary school. Hukou wasn’t a barrier to her education, her father says.
A woman working in one of the courtyards has her baby’s clothing drying in the sun.
So many migrants have come to the villages of Longtang, the town within which Ding’an is located, that the migrant population has almost overtaken the local population. In 2012, there were 57,000 people who called Longtang home and 55,000 migrant workers. Most of the migrants have been here for multiple years.
The locals have a detached view towards the local industry. Longtang’s town center is 7 kilometers (4 mi) down the road from Ding’an, and downtown Qingyuan is 17 kilometers (11 mi) north east of Ding’an, but the pollution from the recycling industry impacts the whole surrounding area. A waitress in Longtang said she could never move away from Longtang. Shenzhen is too far away, and Guangzhou has too many people and is too expensive. Anyway, Longtang is her home, pollution or not.
Back in Ding’an, some of the workers and operators said they didn’t worry too much about pollution. In the development of a country, pollution is a necessary byproduct of economic development.
The garbage recycling industry does produce a lot of revenue. In 2010, according to Southern Window, recycling added 51.82 billion yuan (US$7.65 billion at 2010 exchange rates) to Qingyuan’s economy, 26 percent of the economy.
But the environmental costs are also high. Electronics have a lot of heavy metals inside them that get released into the environment when they are smashed in courtyards. Chemicals seep into streams and groundwater. The water in Guiyu, another electronics waste town near Guangzhou, got so bad that Southern Window reported no one washes their clothes in the streams anymore. The water has to be pretty bad for that to happen, considering that I’ve still seen people wash their clothes in Suzhou’s canals.
Southern Weekly referenced a study of 165 children in Guiyu that found 135 had excessive levels of lead in their bodies. That fact should be concerning in a town like Ding’an with so many children. Worst of all is the process of burning metal components to extract metal, as the burning releases harmful chemicals into the air. None of the workers using blowtorches were wearing any kind of eye or nose protection.
The government does worry about pollution, but as with most policies in China, they have taken slow action, considering the need to balance environmental protection with economic development. Starting in 2001, the central government slowly began introducing controls on trash imports. In 2010, they raised the import tax. Locals say the number of operators has decreased somewhat in recent years. The industry was also hurt by the 2008 economic crisis.
This slogan says anyone who harms the environment will be punished by the law:
In this way, China is following the development trajectory of so many other countries. Only when a country is rich does it have the luxury to worry too much about pollution. Taiwan used to take in much of the world’s trash, but in the 1980’s, localities began banning trash import.
The pollution of Ding’an isn’t entirely from the process of extracting metals. The villages here also suffer from the general lack of public consciousness that plagues villages across China. Trash is thrown on the ground. Down dirt backroads, there are huge piles of trash by a pond. I have seen this kind of mess on the edges of villages in Yunnan, too. There’s no public trash service, so people just pile the trash there and burn it every so often. But the public trash problem may be exacerbated in Ding’an because there is so much crap to begin with. Recycling company operators seem to have left some of the useless materials in piles alongside dirt roads.
All of the recycling courtyards are located in clusters behind the main provincial road. Along with recycling, there are a few production factories and some convenience stores to serve the people who live and work there, but the vast majority of buildings are either recycling centers or homes of workers.
The main road that runs between Ding’an and Longtang is lined with ordinary old buildings less than a dozen stories high with restaurants and a hospital and shops.
Longtang is a bit bigger, but it’s still not very clean. The sidewalks are muddy and riddled with cracks. There are few traffic lights. It’s the kind of small town where most of the hotels don’t have a permit to serve foreigners. When I arrived from the train station in an unlicensed taxi, the driver gave his ID card to the front desk to help me check in. At the local branch of Agricultural Bank of China, the ATM machines were not giving money, and a local ambulance driver who also couldn’t get money offered to drive me to Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. A local pharmacy’s English name is “Big Pharmacy In Common People.”
Such a small town still manages to be lively. In the morning and at night, a restaurant serves dim sum on the street, foods that you can’t easily find outside of Guangdong and Hong Kong. The market street is packed with vegetable merchants.