Technology

Can You Spot Your Old PC at One of the World’s Largest Electronic Dumps?

How our lack of efficient electronics-disposal options has turned one town into a wasteland.

Guiyu, China
A polluted river flows past a workshop that is used for recycling electronic waste in the township of Guiyu, June 10, 2015.

Photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters

What happens when you throw away an old MacBook or phone? Most likely, it will travel to Guiyu, a town in the Guangdong province in southeast China. The town has a population of 150,000 and harbors millions of pounds of discarded e-waste like computers, cellphones, and hard drives.

Guiyu, China 5
A toy tricycle is seen on circuit boards at a workshop in the township of Guiyu, June 8, 2015.

Photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Because it is cheaper to dispose of used electronics by shipping them away rather than properly recycling and reusing the products, this has become the region’s primary source of income. Guiyu has over 5,500 businesses, most of which are family-owned, that disassemble old electronics for valuable metals like copper and lead. Together, these businesses employ tens of thousands of people who collectively dismantle 1.5 million pounds of discarded waste a year. The town, however, lacks the proper tools and safety precautions to deal with such large amounts of waste. As a result, the process is incredibly dangerous for the people and their surrounding environment. To extract metals from a circuit board, the workers burn each part over an open fire; this process releases large amounts of toxic gas into the air and the town’s water supply.

Advertisement

In a 2008 study titled Heavy Metals Concentrations of Surface Dust from e-Waste Recycling and Its Human Health Implications in Southeast China, researchers found that there were elevated levels of lead, copper and zinc in the schoolyards in addition to the factories.

Guiyu, China 5
Buffalos are seen adjacent to workshops recycling plastic components from electronic waste in Guiyu, June 10, 2015.

Photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Organizations like Greenpeace have urged major electronics makers to reduce the amount of dangerous chemicals used in electronics and to take back their merchandise for proper reuse and disposal. Nonetheless, the dump continues to grow, with other dumps beginning to sprout around the world, including Agbogbloshie, Ghana, where millions of tons of metal are also disposed of each year.  

Guiyu, China 8
Circuit boards lie inside a home in Guiyu, June 8, 2015.

Photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Advertisement
Guiyu, China 10
A worker distributes electronic waste at a government-managed recycling center in Guiyu, June 10, 2015.

Photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Guyiu, China 6
Workers illegally distribute old computers and printers to others for future recycling outside the government designated recycling center in Guiyu, June 8, 2015. 

Photo by Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Guiyu, China 2
A new factory, which is to be used for recycling waste, is under construction at a government managed area in the township of Guiyu, June 10, 2015.

Photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Guiyu, China 3
Old cellular phone components are discarded inside a workshop in the township of Guiyu, June 10, 2015.

Photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Advertisement
Guiyu, China 9
A polluted river flows past a workshop used for processsing plastic components of electronic waste in Guiyu, June 10, 2015.

Photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Advertisement