Electronic Waste: How Computer Screens and Circuit Boards are Poisoning Rural China

By: Amy Cade

Waste is bad.   Electronic waste is worse.

At the Sustainable Electronic Initiative I am trying to find out as much as I can about how much e-waste exists, how it is dealt with, who is dealing with it, and what can be done about it.

The most important of all of the e-waste problems comes from the toxins contained in electronics, which can be released if the electronics are dismantled incorrectly.  Exposure to these toxins doesn’t usually happen here in the United States; we tend to send the electronics to places that don’t have these electronics or consume a great deal less than we do.  According to the EPA, 61% of computer screens (CRTs) and TVs collected for recycling were exported in 2005, even though this is illegal.  When they are sent for disposal overseas, they are broken down and sold for parts.  The chemicals released in informal processing are deadly.  The working conditions can be hazardous and the effects are often permanent.

One example is the town of Guiyu, in Southern China. Eighty percent of the families that live in Guiyu work in the business of recycling electronics.  There is no environmental oversight.  This usually means open-air burning of circuit boards and other electronic components so that valuable metals can be retrieved.  A side effect of recovering silver and gold from these components is that other metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury are released into the atmosphere.

Exposure to fumes from these chemicals has long been cited as a cause of disruptions to the function of the central nervous system.  A recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics has linked air pollution to lower IQs in children.  The people of Guiyu have significant health issues because of lead and other toxins in the air, ground, and drinking water.

The problem of electronic waste is a huge and difficult one.  But we made the mess, and I have confidence that we can find ways to fix it.

A few weeks ago North and Clark interviewed Willie Cade Founder and CEO of PCRR.  Afterwards we got a chance to speak with his daughter Amy a student at the University of Illinios who writes a blog dedicated to the topic of electronic waste.  I asked her to fill in my readers on this problem and its implications.