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By Paolo Pontoniere, NCM Online

16 June 2002 -- Silicon Valley Group Spurs China to Ban E-waste Imports From U.S. NCM Online, Paolo Pontoniere, Jun 16, 2002 Thanks to the persistence of the Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition, a Silicon Valley-based environmental advocacy group, Chinese environmental authorities have decided to ban the importation of e-waste from the US, European media reported this week.

Continental newspapers, magazines, and online media welcomed the Chinese decision as proof that cross-national collaboration between social activists can positively impact global developments. The Chinese decision comes on the heels of an intense international lobbying campaign organized by the Silicon Valley group in collaboration with the Basel, Switzerland-based Basel Action Network and India's Toxic Link India.

E-waste is comprised of discarded consumer electronic appliances, including telephones, computers, fax machines, photocopy machines, videocameras, and TV sets. E-waste has become the fastest growing kind of waste in the world, due to both the recent meteoric growth rate experienced in the electronic industry, and to the built-in obsolescence of these products. Because e-waste contains more than 1000 different chemical compounds, it is one of the most polluting industrial products of our time. Hazardous substances found in e-waste include cadmium, copper, beryllium, lead, and brominated flame retardants. Since the United States is the world's principal producer and consumer of e-appliances, the problems associated with e-waste disposal, storage, and recycling are much larger and more pressing here than in other parts of the world.

In 1998 about 20 million computers were already obsolete in the US. The overall weight of the e-waste for that year is estimated to have been between 5 and 7 million tons. A study conducted in 1999 by Stanford Resources, Inc. on behalf of the National Safety Council projected that, by 2001, more than 40 million computers would become obsolete in the US. In California alone, more than 6000 computers become obsolete every day. Experts estimate that in the ten-year period between 1997 and 2007 the number of discarded computers will surpass 500 million.

The Graduate School of Industrial Administration of Carnegie Mellon University calculates that, in 2002, 12.5 million computers will end up in US recycling plants, with an estimated 80 percent moving offshore to Asia. This means that 10.2 million units will end up either in China, India, or Pakistan. The Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition says this number of units, stacked one on top of the other, would cover one acre and would be taller than twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.

The US is the only industrialized country that has not signed the 1989 international treaty known as the Basel Convention, which in 1994 was ammended to ban the export of all hazardous waste from industrialized to emerging countries. As a result, US recyclers of discarded consumer electronics have found it easier to export the waste rather than face the costs of dismantling and recycling, and the subsequent difficulties of disposing of the waste here in the US. European commentators find it ironic that the US, with its strict environmental laws, may have created a situation that nearly requires the exportation of hazardous materials such as e-waste to countries that don't have such a clearly articulated commitment to preserving the environment.

According to a study funded by the Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition, between 50 and 80 percent of all e-waste collected for recycling in the western United States ends up in the electronic junkyards of Guiyu, a town located west of Shantous City in the Chazhou region of China's Guangdong province. Here, according to environmentalists, the discarded computers and electronic appliances are dismembered in totally unsafe conditions by peasants, including young children, who work in open air pits and without any protective gear. Western reporters who have traveled to the area have recounted horror stories of kneeling women extracting chips from computer motherboards while others work over pots full of boiling, molten lead.

An onsite investigation conducted by Greenpeace China and the Basel Action Network resulted in estimations that more than 100,000 people have been exposed to very high levels of toxic substances. Because local water sources and the nearby river have been contaminated by these toxins, people in Guiyu must rely on water brought in from the nearby city of Ninjing for drinking and washing.

Because of restrictions imposed by Chinese authorities, environmental activists were not able to travel to other areas of the region to verify the existence of other, similar open area "recycling" encampaments. But, according to Guiyu peasants, larger facilities are operating in other regions of the Guangdong province.

European observers believe that, as long as the US doesn't embrace the mandate of the Basel Convention to enforce a total ban on the exportation of its hazardous waste to third world countries, Chinese people will continue to accept incoming loads of e-waste, despite the recent ban on importation of these materials by the Chinese government. Europeans report that the financial lure of the precious metals e-waste contains and the chance to resell some of the dismantled computers' components are already spurring local Chinese crime bosses to pay law enforcement officers to turn a blind eye on the continuing e-waste trade.

Sources: Avvertenze,, L'Espresso,, The Guardian, The Register, Telepolis-Magazin der Netzkultur,

All photos by Basel Action Network.

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. The Basel Action Network is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a `fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond `fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. 
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