Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN), the environmental organization that in 2001 reported on the global electronic scrap dumping ground in Guiyu, China, and the Society of Canton Nature Conservation have confirmed following a visit in December 2015 that the Chinese government has moved to place strict controls on informal e-scrap recycling operations and also has prohibited the entry of foreign e-waste into the Guiyu area.
As of Dec. 1, by order of regional authorities, all work on e-scrap was to be moved and confined to a large 1.5 billion yuan ($233 million) industrial park, Guiyu Circular Economy Industrial Park, BAN states in a news release. Furthermore, all e-scrap coming into the industrial park must arrive at one central receiving location where it is now screened to disallow foreign e-scrap. While China has long had a national e-scrap import ban, it was never adequately enforced in Guiyu until now, BAN says.
“This day of action in Guiyu has been promised for over a decade, and it is truly remarkable to finally see it first hand,” says BAN Executive Director Jim Puckett. “We are relieved that the cleanup has begun, and that the efforts of many are resulting in real improvements in the lives and environment around Guiyu.
“The celebration is dampened, however, by how long it has taken, how much damage has been done, and concerns about the future. Unless halted at the source, the Guiyu waste now turned away by Chinese enforcement may simply find new destinations,” Puckett adds.
In 2001 Puckett recorded the massive export of e-scrap to Guiyu and the backyard recycling operations performed by migrant workers there, publishing the findings in a report and film titled “Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia,” released in February 2002. Since that time BAN says its representatives have travelled to Guiyu regularly to witness developments. In 2008, Puckett travelled with CBS’s “60 Minutes” to record the episode “The Wasteland.” Puckett’s last trip, in 2013, still showed massive importation and polluting operations proliferating, the BAN news release states.
BAN also took the first analytical soil and water samples in Guiyu, revealing gross contamination. Today scientists have further affirmed the severe toxic impacts of dirty e-scrap recycling, including effects on children’s health. A recent study continues to show, for example, alarming lead levels in the blood in the children of Guiyu. It is expected that, despite the recent developments, the soil and groundwater will remain severely contaminated for some time, BAN says.
Chinese e-waste activist Lai Yun, who is founder and executive director of the Society of Canton Nature Conservation, accompanied Puckett on the recent visit. Lai’s new organization is focused on environmental education.
“When I talk to children, I share with them the story of Guiyu and how the environment, once polluted, will remain contaminated with heavy metals and persistent chemicals for centuries,” Lai says. “Guiyu is a lesson that a ‘war on pollution’ that China has now undertaken is best fought through preventing the pollution in the first place.”
According to reports, the closure of the estimated 5,000 workshops in Guiyu began taking place in earnest in November, BAN says. During their December visit, Puckett and Lai saw the shuttered operations; only a few abandoned piles of e-scrap were left behind in some yards and waysides, BAN reports. The old chimneys, behind which hundreds of women sat cooking circuit boards in shallow woks just a few months ago, have been cut away and the holes cemented up. Large red banners hung across the roadways promising stiff fines and power being cut for any that fail to move to the industrial park, the BAN news release states.
Although their visit to the industrial park was unannounced, Puckett and Lai received a tour and spoke with the director. They examined the incoming e-scrap in the receiving area and toured some of the new workshops inside the park, BAN says. However, the men say they observed that the basic harmful technologies employed in Guiyu remain the same. Massive hand cooking of circuit boards is still occurring, albeit with exhaust hoods and lead-tin fumes now sucked into chimneys and scrubbed before release, BAN notes.
“We applaud the actions of the Chinese government to finally enforce their hazardous waste import ban and to begin to protect their citizens and environment from e-waste pollution in Guiyu,” Puckett says. “We fear, however, that the externalization of costs and harm will simply continue to new locations as long as countries like the United States allow exports of hazardous wastes with impunity.”
He adds, “China has now taken responsibility for trying to control this illegal trade on their end; it is time for the exporting nations to do the same.”