Amid the current technological revolution, society is constantly replacing its devices, machines, and other gadgets with the newest versions available. Though recent innovations have made everyday life more efficient for many, this excess consumption of technology has produced a detrimental bi-product— electronic waste, the buildup of discarded electronic devices. Twenty to fifty million metric tons of e-waste are generated globally each year, with up to seventy percent of this garbage ending up in China (Chen et al., 2011). Though the Chinese government enacted a ban on e-waste imports in 2002, smugglers still use illegal channels to ditch electronic garbage in Chinese dumping grounds, especially in the southern town of Guiyu, the world’s largest e-waste disposal site (Li et al.
, 2018). The enormous mountains of e-waste that accumulate in Guiyu are detrimental to the surrounding environment but are made even more toxic because of how they are handled: informal recycling. Informal recycling is the illegal process by which people, often referred to as “scavengers” or “collectors,” dismantle discarded electronics without following proper government regulations.
By doing so, these collectors expose themselves to a myriad of health risks. Thus, by implementing an e-waste micro-factory in Guiyu, the informal recycling sector would be redirected to regulated processes, enhancing the good health and wellbeing of citizens.
To retrieve the precious metals and plastics from discarded computers, phones, TVs, etc., informal recyclers handle the waste using primitive methods, such as boiling, burning, stripping with acid, or chipping with hammers and bare hands (Ya Tang, 2016). Due to these processes, collectors are poisoned by an endless number of toxic chemicals.
For example, when burning plastic in open spaces, collectors inevitably inhale polychlorinated dibenzofurans, which can lead to severe skin disease and immune system damage. Furthermore, when burning rubber wires to uncover the copper that lies underneath, scavengers inhale toxic hydrocarbons (Tian et al., 2012). By handling lead, the most commonly used metal in computers, televisions, and circuit boards, for long periods, scavengers can experience both brain and nervous system damage (Orlins et al., 2016). In addition, general exposure to cadmium and mercury, two extremely common chemicals found in electronics, can lead to kidney, liver, bone, and brain damage (Zhang et al., 2011). Thus, it is no surprise that citizens in Guiyu suffer various health issues. In 2003, a study by the Shantou University Medical College found an abnormally high presence of vertigo, chronic gastritis, and gastric ulcers amongst Guiyu citizens who handled circuit boards (Li et al., 2012). Furthermore, it is not only the collectors that are affected by toxic chemicals but also the children who live in the polluted environment and the infants who are born to mothers with unhealthy reproductive systems. Another study by the university in 2008 found 81% of the blood samples from Guiyu infants to have significantly high levels of lead while 20% had high levels of cadmium (Zhang et al., 2011). In 2004, Xia Huo, a professor at the university, researched the impact of Guiyu’s e-waste on children and observed a prevalence of respiratory irritation and skin burning (Zhang et al., 2011).
Moreover, while the health damages caused by informal recycling are undoubtedly severe, continuing these illegal processes to sell materials at black markets is the only source of income for hundreds of collectors and their families in Guiyu. Collectors are often so impoverished that they must have their children join them in dismantling electronics (Fu et al., 2018). Consequently, the solution to the e-waste problem in Guiyu must not only redirect the informal recycling sector to more regulated processes but also consider how to compensate for the loss of income collectors would experience if they were to halt informal recycling altogether. Thus, implementing self-sustaining micro factors that Guiyu collectors could sell e-waste to would help weaken the presence of informal recycling while benefiting collectors both in health and finance.
The microfactory in Guiyu would be based on an already successful e-waste micro-factory in Sydney, Australia that was launched in April of 2018 by Veena Sahajwalla, a professor at the University of New South Wales. The microfactory takes electronic waste, deconstructs them using regulated, environmentally-friendly processes, and sells the resulting reusable materials (Sahajwalla, 2018). Using robots, computer scanning, and furnaces, the factory can reform e-waste into products that are in high demand by various industries; computer circuit boards are transformed into reusable copper and tin while glass and plastic from electronics are converted into micro-materials used for 3D printing (Das, 2018). Overall, the micro-factory uses fairly simple technology to effectively convert discarded electronics into extremely useful materials.
Though the model for implementing a micro-factory in Guiyu would be based on an already existing creation, the new micro-factory would be different in that all e-waste used would be delivered by collectors. The microfactory could distribute safety materials, such as reusable containers and gloves, for the scavengers to use when recovering valuable e-waste from landfills. After collectors fill their containers with e-waste that they deem useful, they would bring their findings to sell to the factory. Thus, collectors would not only be able to make money but would also save time by simply having to identify valuable e-waste rather than going through the process of dismantling the electronics. Most importantly, by handing the waste over to the factory rather than breaking the electronics down themselves, collectors would no longer be directly exposed to toxic chemicals for long periods.
Another way in which the Guiyu micro-factory would be different from the one in UNSW is that it would partner with local businesses in China. To make back the money it uses to pay collectors, the factory could coordinate with local manufacturing and 3-D printer companies to sell the various plastics and metals they make from the e-waste. The factory would most likely not make any net profit after compensating collectors, paying workers needed to run the machinery, and using money to maintain machinery, but it would still be able to function without any outside financial intervention. Consequently, it would be a completely sustainable social business.
A potential problem that could arise in the implementation of the micro-factory would be getting collectors to bring e-waste to the site rather than continuing their illegal processes and markets. Because informal recycling is so ingrained into the lifestyles of these collectors, it would take time to change their conventions; collectors may lack trust in the micro-factory at first and may believe their processes to be more profitable. However, if ambassadors from the micro-factory relayed information about the site and its monetary and health benefits to collectors through flyers, home visits, and other means of advertisement, the factory would slowly gain popularity. Over time, it would become recognized as a superior way of earning money among the recyclers.
The issue of e-waste is often overlooked because of the growing fascination with technological advancement; however, society must consider the larger impact of their rapid consumption of electronics. The piles of e-waste that grow taller every year in Guiyu, China, enable impoverished workers to illegally recycle electronics to sell materials and provide for their families, poisoning themselves and their children with toxic chemical exposure in the process. Establishing an e-waste microfactory would not only redirect the informal recycling sector in Guiyu to regulated recycling means but would also be able to compensate collectors for bringing in e-waste. Moreover, it would greatly decrease the health risks associated with illegal recycling, impacting individual lives while also tackling a larger social and environmental problem.