E-waste 'recycling' in Guiyu, China - 05 / Article: The Lianjiang – A Story Of A Chinese River

Today's post is the last set of images from a weekly series of photographs from the e-waste capital of the world, Guiyu, in China's Guangdong Province. Read the full story here.

Kids in close proximity to e-waste. This migrant worker family from Sichuan Province had no clue as to the health hazards of working in the e-waste business.

When my translator told them of the risks, the man sitting on the small red plastic stool, Chen Jiaxin, 29, a father of three, replied: "We never knew that our kids could get cancer or other diseases by touching e-waste. We always thought it was no problem if they just washed their hands afterwards!"

Here's a less than ideal situation for a young mother and baby to be in.

Unloading a truck half full of e-waste.

Migrant workers sorting through piles of e-waste by the side of the road.

A warehouse with a yard full of bags of e-waste.

A pile of hard drives.

Signs on the main street in Guiyu relating to e-waste purchasing.

A man squatting next to a pile of hard drives.

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Finally, here's a story I wrote for the Hong Kong JMSC about the Lianjiang River that runs right through the middle of Guiyu...

The Lianjiang – A Story Of A Chinese River

According to China's Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Lianjiang River, which flows through the country’s eastern Guangdong Province, is rated a 'Category 5 River’ - the worst out of a total of 5 possible categories. This means the water from it is neither fit for human consumption, nor for agricultural use.

Major sources of pollution along the river include domestic household waste and industrial pollution from textile factories. But by far the biggest source of pollution along the Lianjiang River is from the processing of electronic waste, or ‘e-waste’. This takes place at the town of Guiyu on the Lianjiang’s upper reaches. Toxic solutions that contains high levels of dangerous chemicals derived from e-waste processing in Guiyu, seep directly into the Lianjiang River. From Guiyu, the toxic chemicals continue their journey into the sea at the port of Haimen Bay. Local fishermen there complain of dwindling catches and are losing their jobs, whilst fishing boats stay moored in the bay for weeks on end.

However, the spring water flowing from the source of the Lianjiang River is clean. Coming straight out of Dananshan mountain, the water collected at the San Keng Shang reservoir, in Pu Ning County, appears clean and clear. But just one pace from the clay hole in the side of the mountain, the spring water encounters its first piece of downstream man-made pollution, a discarded piece of polystyrene foam. This common packaging material cannot biodegrade. The problem is that polystyrene foam breaks down continuously into ever smaller and smaller pieces. It eventually enters the food chain at the molecular level, with unknown side effects for animals and humans. The spring water of the Lianjiang River at San Keng Shang has been dammed for the benefit of the local townsfolk. Fishing is illegal at the reservoir, but they persist nonetheless.

The worst source of pollution along the Lianjiang River is undoubtedly to be found at Guiyu. Situated on the upper reaches of the river, the town is at the centre of the world's 'e-waste' processing industry. Illegal container loads of discarded electronic goods from the United States, Japan and Europe, find their way to China via the port of Hong Kong. Most of it usually ends up in Guiyu for 'recycling' at informal e-waste processing factories, of which there are around 3,000 in the town. Computers, printers, keyboards, CRT monitors, mobile phones, and other obsolete high tech junk can be seen in large piles strewn across Guiyu.

Migrant workers from other Chinese provinces provide the labor. Some work with sodium cyanide baths used to dissolve lead and precious metals, such as gold, silver and cadmium from computer integrated circuit boards. This is by far the most poisonous and dangerous e-waste processing job of all, as most workers get sick from doing this job within a month. The waste solution can contain lead, dioxins or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and is usually discarded by pouring it into the soil. It then leeches into the water table and the Lianjiang River itself, leaving it severely poisoned.

Metal that is encased in plastic in electronic devices such as printers is freed by uncontrolled open burning. Wires are burnt to free the copper inside. The acrid black smoke released from the fires is carcinogenic and can contain dangerous neurotoxins, dioxins and furans. After the metals have been collected, the black burnt-out refuse from the fires is easily disposed of into the Lianjiang River.

There are no fish in the lifeless Lianjiang River. The children can often be seen playing with toxic e-waste alongside their migrant worker parents. All food and drinking water has to be imported into Guiyu from outside. This results in much higher living costs for migrant workers, many of whom will later be faced with high medical bills.

According to Dr Lin Banghong, a doctor at the hospital in Guiyu who refused to be photographed, the incidence of cancer among e-waste workers in the town is high. Dr Lin said, “Although we can't conclusively be sure of the link between the pollution and the incidence of cancer here in Guiyu, we do strongly believe that the pollution is a factor affecting people’s health here.”

Dr Lin is also concerned that workers in the e-waste industry in Guiyu are falling ill from diseases hitherto unknown in China. This is because much of the imported e-waste is smuggled into China and therefore not subject to China’s stringent quarantine regulations. Keyboards, for example, are notorious for harboring a large variety of different germs.

Education about the toxic side effects of e-waste handling is virtually unknown among the town’s residents. Mr. Chen Jiaxin, 29, a local from Guiyu, runs a small e-waste family business. He has three children. When told about the possible side effects of the e-waste on his children, Mr. Chen said, "We never knew that our kids could get cancer or other diseases by touching e-waste. We always thought it was no problem if they just washed their hands afterwards!"

Further downstream, the industrial run-off from textile factories on the Lianjiang River is another significant source of pollution. The middle reaches of the river are home to many polluting factories producing ladies underwear. To conceal from sight their toxic effluent many factories bury their outflow pipes deep into the river. 

The wanton disposal of household waste in the Lianjiang River is a problem too. Many residents in the area are unaware that the throwing of household garbage into the river can pose a serious problem for the environment. At Zhan Long, the Lianjiang River runs through a lock situated between its upper and lower reaches. Chen Jinping, 37, a migrant worker from Chongqing Municipality, spends twelve hours a day at the sluice gate fishing out errant plastic bags and other debris from the water inflow at the entrance to the lock’s hydroelectric turbine. She earns Euro 112 (CNY 1,000) a month, working the twelve-hour shifts with her husband. They rarely eat together. She and husband and two small children live in a tiny room inside directly above the turbine, and she says that she worries for her children’s health. According to Ms Chen, “The local people here are selfish. They throw their trash into the river when no one is looking. This river is like a sewer, and it’s even worse on sunny days.”

Near the lock is a plastics recycling facility. Migrant workers from Sichuan Province sift through large bales of crushed plastic bottles from the United States; Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Tropicana and Dasani mineral water, all the big soft drink names are there. The plastic bottles are shredded into small pieces at the plant, ready to be melted down and recycled according to plastic type, of which there are many. A baseball lies abandoned in the plastic chippings, thousands of miles away from it’s original owner. A cow sits forlornly among plastic chippings and discarded glass wool, by to it’s source of water, a filthy tributary of the Lianjiang River. 

Eventually the most polluted river in Guangdong Province  flows into the sea at Haimen Bay. By now the river is black, bubbling and viscous, clogged up with garbage and algae. Fishermen here complain about the lack of fish in the bay, and about how they need to go further and further out to sea to catch fish. It’s unclear whether the lack of fish around Haimen Bay is as result of the pollution or over-fishing. But it is evident that fishing has become uneconomical in Haimen Bay, with hundreds of boats lined up in the mouth of bay going nowhere. Due to the excess in fishing capacity, catches are now too low to warrant the high cost of fuel required to go fishing.

Zheng Qingzhou, a fisherman in Haimen Bay started to notice the water quality of the Lianjiang River deteriorate about ten years ago. Mr. Zheng said, “Young people here no longer want to work in the fishing industry. And some young fishermen here are finding it very hard to get a wife, since girls these days aren’t interested in men doing jobs with such low prospects.”

No one knows for sure how many people have fallen ill or died as a consequence of the severe pollution of the Lianjiang River. And no one knows for sure what the long-term effects will be on natural environment - the surrounding farmlands and the Pacific Ocean itself.

ALEX HOFFORD
7th May 2009

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