In Meisheng Chen’s memory, about twenty years ago, there were green fields in Guiyu. Every day, farmers furrowed fields with water buffalos, and fed their chickens and ducks in front of their houses. When night fell, the aroma of rice and fish wafted through town. There were two wells in the town, and all the residents gathered water their water at them. Water there was sweet and clean.
Now facing the place she has lived for almost thirty years, Chen seems hesitant. Under the hot sunshine, the city is filled with the smell of burning plastic and electronics. The residents living in the center of the town have to bear a stinking river in front of government buildings. Some residents said the groundwater was polluted, oil having contaminated it.
Guiyu town, once a rural community, has become one of the biggest distribution centers of electronic recycled parts in China. Residents run family-operated businesses collecting all kinds of electronic goods. They burn or strip down electronics, extract valuable parts and metals, and resell the parts and metals for cash.
But the industry that has made some families here wealthy has also caused serious pollution; the index of a highly poisonous toxins in the soil of Guiyu is 28 times higher than garbage dumps in the Philippines, according to Croucher Institute for Environmental Sciences and Biology of the Baptist University of Hong Kong.The highly poisonous toxins coming from chemical compounds left over from incineration and can cause skin disease and liver cancer.
A serious pollution problem may only get worse this year, as hundreds of thousands of old televisions are set to be dumped in Guiyu as Hong Kong switches to high definition televisions.
On Dec.31, 2007, Hong Kong officially started digital broadcasting, and citizens are trading in old televisions for the high definition televisions (HDTV). About 460,000 old TV sets will be thrown away in Guiyu and Taizhou, according to Yongzhi Ou, the director of environmental affairs in the NGO Friends of the Earth, said in a recent China Radio International report.
Friends of the Earth said that most of the old TV sets use the Cathode-ray tubes-CRT, which contain five highly poisonous heavy metals and chemical elements: lead, phosphorous, cadmium, barium and mercury. When these materials are burned, heated or melted, the highly poisonous toxins and other poisonous gas will be released.
Even Chen, whose family profits from the electronic recycling business, admits Guiyu’s problems are serious.
“The recycling can help to make money, but it does cause pollution here,” said Chen. Chen, a local in Guiyu, has lived here almost for 30 years with her husband, mother-in-law and three children. Three years ago, she started a family-run business in the industrial park in Huamei village of Guiyu. She seldom travels to other place because it is so busy since her factory opened.
Based on Chen’s conservative estimate, the electronic junk recycling business would bring 50,000 to 60,000 yuan net profit per year to her family.”I know there will be a little poisonous gas and it causes some pollution when we heat the circuit broads,” Chen said. “In general, the whole production process is safe.”
Chen’s family was a farming family before getting into electronics recycling. Before opening her factory, she recycled in a small house. As the business heated up, the space in her home was not enough so she decided to rent a bigger place for the business.
In her factory, she is in charge of workers who break boards into parts and then sell them to customers. Her husband is in charge of purchasing all kinds of circuit wafers of household appliances from Nanhai or Guangzhou. Discarded electronics are purchased by the ton from the big trucks that roll into the town once a month.
Junk bought by the ton will then be separated into two main kinds, reusable parts and junk parts. Resuable parts such as silicon chips, LEDs and IC chips are sold to electronics factories. Junk parts are sold to individual middlemen, who often ride motorcycles to collect parts door to door and then transport them to the a nearby electroplate factory which distills metals from them, especially gold and copper.
Maoyong Huang, the Deputy Major of Guiyu, who is in charge of the development of electronic junk recycling, said Guiyu started the electronic junk recycling industry in the middle of 1990s and purchased traditional things like metal and plastic at the beginning.
“There are over 140,000 workers taking part in recycling but most of the business are ran by families, which means family members join in production in their family factory,” he said. “They lack the knowledge and technique of recycling, which is the main reason of causing pollution.”
Though Guiyu suffers from the effects of the electronic scrap industry, Huang sees it as a kind of service.”Recycling can save about two millions tons of petrol and three millions tons of ore for the country every year,” said Mr. Huang proudly. “We pollute ourselves but help reduce the pollution to the entire world.
Residents don’t seem worried about any possible deleterious effects that more junk scrapping of old TVs might bring. Chen said imported junk was very popular and demand exceeds supply in Guiyu. “The rubbish trucks come and a crowd of people rush to them,” she said.
The most prized discarded electronics come from countries outside China, valued for the parts and metals which can be extracted from them.”Our rubbish is mainly from foreign countries. Like the American plates are purchased about for fifty-sixty thousands yuan per ton and the South Korea’s are forty thousands yuan per ton,” she said. “We seldom purchase the domestic-made rubbish.”
Guo, another local businessman in Nanyang village of Guiyu township, said that the quality of the domestically-made rubbish made it hard to distill precious metals from it. “Hong Kong trash is good. I like to purchase it,” he said.
But he too is aware of the problems that come from the industry.
“We know the pollution here is serious,” Guo said. “But we have no choice. All the people here are doing this for living.”
Mr. Huang, the deputy mayor, explained that the local government didn’t know the rubbish came from foreign countries or Hong Kong.”Our junk is mainly from the Pearl River Delta,” he said. “We don’t have a system to locate the rubbish source, but we will set up this system soon.”
Meisheng Chen, the woman with the family business, has mixed feelings about Guiyu and its industry. Though Chen insisted that there was a little pollution during the heating process, she hated people who threw garbage into the river and didn’t contribute any money to protect their environment.
She and her husband support a sick mother-in-law on their income, and their three children are in school. But they live in a community where the glory of making money is tainted with greed and grime. In the old days, residents helped each other, according to Chen. Once they became rich from the rubbish recycling business, Chen said, there was only money in their eyes and they forgot the environment of their hometown.
“If I could choose my future,” she said, pausing, “I would give up the high-income and go back to the old days so that we would live a happy life together.”
Emma Lu contributed reporting and John Noonan contributed writing assistance to this article.