Ever wonder where the cell phone or computer you toss ends up? Our writer follows her own digital detritus to the far ends of the earth.

By Ellen Ruppel Shell/ Photography by Peter Essick
Published: May-June 2008

Chen did not own a car, so we hired a cab to follow the early morning traffic to Taizhou's main port area, where ships from all over the world were unloading cargo. Containers packed with scrap from Japan, Korea, and the United States were opened and shoveled into the beds of dilapidated trucks. They drove onto an enormous lot and dumped their loads, where bulldozers scraped rubble into piles two to three stories high. Entrepreneurs examined the piles, bid on them, and scooped their purchases into more open trucks. The road from the port was thick with these vehicles, some with great lengths of copper wire dragging behind like tails, shooting sparks. We followed this convoy to the recycling processing zone, where workers in bamboo lean-tos dismantled and sorted the debris. They used sharp, fire-honed chisels to pry metal from metal, and wore no protective gear to shield their eyes from flying bits. There were small children working here, but also playing; a runny-nosed toddler dragged a discarded vacuum cleaner by its cord like a pull toy.

Most of the workshops were open, but a few were hidden by high bamboo walls. Peering around these walls we found a stretch of laminated folding tables cluttered with electronic parts. About 20 men and women stood behind the tables, hammering, prying, and twisting, breaking off bits, and sorting them into baskets. I asked a well-dressed man who appeared to be the owner which of these parts brought the most profit. He told me the circuit boards, which contained precious metals.

As we left the workshop, Chen pointed to the remains of a little lake that had been partially filled in to make way for this "recycling village." Two women washed clothes as their children played in the stream of an outlet pipe. The water was slimy black. "The lake is very polluted now, because of all of the processing," Chen said. Later that day we drove to Chen's school, where he showed me photographs of frogs that his students had fished out of that lake. The frogs were mutants--each had a leg missing.

Many of the laborers harvesting electronics in Taizhou were once farmers from western regions of the country who migrated in search of work. In the recycling village, I spoke with a woman of about 30 wearing the classic conical hat still popular among Asian farm workers but oddly out of place here. She was unraveling strands of copper wire the thickness of a darning thread from a heavy braided cable. The woman and her family can make 50 yuan--about $7.14--in a 12-hour day, an excellent wage in a region where vendors sell bowls of noodles for 20 cents. Behind her a clutch of men were roasting something over an open brazier. Though they blocked our view, we caught a whiff of burning plastic, almost certainly insulation being singed from the copper wire. These casings contain lead and other toxics that when burned escape in dangerous fumes. None of the workers wore face masks or any other protective gear.

A spate of bad publicity embarrassing to the Chinese government was partially responsible for forcing a shift of the most dangerous work out of the recycling villages into the hills an hour's drive away. Here workers fried circuit boards in wok-like pans, melting the plastic and lead solder to free the precious chips. The solder was reportedly collected for sale to metal dealers, and the chips picked off for reuse or dipped into buckets filled with acid to extract their gold--there's as much as 220 milligrams of gold in a single desktop computer. Gold is extracted using an ancient technique called aqua regia, from the Latin "royal water," a witches' brew of one part concentrated nitric acid and three to four parts concentrated hydrochloric acid. Fumes wafted over the worktables, likely carrying chlorine and sulfur dioxide, corrosive to exposed skin, lungs, and eyes. Waste liquid was dumped on the ground or into a nearby water supply.

Puckett told me that in Africa the trade in electronic waste is robust but somewhat different than it is in Asia. "A huge, uncontrolled electronics trade is hitting every major port city of Africa," he said. "But Africa has no infrastructure to deal with recycling, so they aren't in it for materials recovery." Non-functioning electronics are simply dumped on the ground or into the water.

Sadly, what some call the "effluence of our affluence" is endangering those who can least protect themselves. But this need not be the case. As the people of Switzerland have amply demonstrated, littering the world with our castoffs is not only unethical; in an era of quickly depleting resources, it is unwise.


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Ellen Ruppel Shell

Ellen Ruppel Shell is a professor at the graduate program in science journalism at Boston University.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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