Shoveling IT

Guiyu, China

By Jia Lynn Yang, Fortune reporter

(FORTUNE Magazine) -- Even the most marvelous computer eventually winds up in the trash. The United Nations estimates that 20 million to 50 million tons of e-waste are created worldwide every year. But all those circuitboards and plastic casings don't just vanish on their own. A lot ends up in a place called Guiyu (pronounced GWAY-yoo), once a quiet fishing village on China's coast, 150 miles from Hong Kong.

Now as many as 100,000 workers, like these two men shoveling computer parts, do the dirty and very dangerous work of dismantling and recycling the scraps, which contain toxins such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. A health survey done last year by nearby Shantou University found that of 165 children under the age of 6 examined in Guiyu, 82% had symptoms of lead poisoning. A vast majority of the e-waste comes from the U.S. and countries in Europe - despite rules established at the 1989 Basel Convention that banned the trading of toxic materials. China passed its own law banning the import of e-waste in 2002, after a report drew attention to Guiyu. But the law is ineffectual in the face of smuggling and local corruption. (The U.S. remains the only industrialized nation that hasn't adopted the Basel guidelines.)

Guiyu is not the only place recycling the discarded computers of richer nations. Similar operations have been found by environmental groups in Karachi, Pakistan, and Chittagong, Bangladesh.  Top of page