The circuit board bakers of Guiyu

A documentary filmmaker visits the town in southern China where computers go to die

Published November 7, 2007 9:45AM (EST)

Scenes from eDump, a documentary exposing what happens to imported electronic waste in China.

  • A woman bakes a circuit board on a coal-fired stove in a pool of melted tin, so as to more easily sort out its components.

  • A woman burns the corner of a piece of plastic with a cigarette lighter, hoping to discern the grade of plastic by its smell.

  • A man stirs a soup of circuit boards and acid in a large tub that gushes red smoke, separating out traces of gold.

A lifetime of blog posts decrying the environmental toll of high-tech industrial production does not begin to approach the impact of Michael Zhao's 20-minute documentary on the processing of e-waste in Guiyu, China. The images are extraordinary and unforgettable. The land, air, and water of Guiyu, a town in Guangdong province that imports a million tons of e-waste a year, are polluted beyond redemption. There are points where Zhao has to stop filming because he cannot physically stand the fumes -- the air "permeated with the smell of baked plastics and burnt circuitry."

Responsibility for the debacle that is Guiyu rests on many Chinese shoulders, from local officials in China who profit off a toxic disaster zone to the central government officials powerless to enforce their own environmental decrees. But the United States cannot escape its own share of shame. 170 nations have signed the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, an international treaty that aims explicitly at preventing the export of hazardous waste from the developed to the developing world. Of those 170 nations, only three have so far failed to ratify it: Afghanistan, Haiti, and the United States.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world in which it is not illegal to export hazardous waste to less developed countries. This is not to say that e-waste from other countries doesn't make its way to China, but at least in Europe, there are laws on the books that require electronics manufacturers to eliminate toxic materials in their products.

Another compelling image in eDump is a river bank in southern Taiwan that appears to consist almost entirely of used circuit boards. 20 years ago, the Taiwanese equivalent to Guiyu thrived along this river, until local outcry and environmental authorities shut it down. You could interpret that as evidence of the Environmental Kuznets Curve, which holds that at a certain point in a nation's economic development, environmental degradation begins to slow, or even reverse. But you could just as easily point to it as proof that all that really happens once a certain point of development is reached is that the nasty stuff gets exported somewhere else.

But even in the shadow of the toxic cloud emanating from Guiyu, a silver lining struggles to break out. Zhao interviews Chinese members of Greenpeace and researchers at the nearby Shantou University Medical College who are monitoring and publicizing the dire health effects of e-waste pollution on the citizens of Guiyu. They represent a side of China that doesn't get as much exposure in the West as the sweatshop employees pumping out export goods or the endless accounts of environmental devastation and growing income inequality that plague China's path to modernization. These men and women are the backbone of China's emerging civil society, the people who ultimately must prevail if China is to somehow escape choking on its own industrial progress. The documentary maker, Michael Zhao, born and raised in Wuhan, China, is another representative of this new class. One has to hope that he signifies the true future of China, and not the dead soil, poisoned water, and damaged children of Guiyu.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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