WASTE IS GOLD: SCAVENGING THROUGH SCRAPS FOR A LIVELIHOOD

-The Story of Guiyu-

Rituparna Choudhury

Sept. 16, 2020

Workers at an E-waste dumping site in China's Guiyu (Image retirved from www.cnn.com)

 

Robert Gilpin and Jean Millis Gilpin in The Challenge of Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century refers to David D. Hale, financial expert and economic commentator where the latter has acknowledged the swift yet rapid entry of Americans and other industrialised nations along with other developing economies into what he has termed as “The Second Great Age of Global Capitalism”.[1] The world economic and political system is experiencing its most profound transformation since the emergence of the international economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. With a historical legacy of Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany and its consequent return as the dominant power in Western Europe, capitalism has taken the shape of a ‘hyper real’ dimension. The ‘retreat of the state’ followed by contemporary neoliberalism are characteristic ways how the role of the state has fluctuated in dynamic manners. Henry Giroux, Chair of Cultural Studies at McMaster University, gives his definition of neoliberal economic policy, “Neoliberalism ...removes economics and markets from the discourse of social obligations and social costs. ...As a policy and political project, neoliberalism is wedded to the privatization of public services, selling off of state functions, deregulation of finance and labour, elimination of the welfare state and unions, liberalization of trade in goods and capital investment, and the marketization and commodification of society.”[2]There is a marked existence of a global economy of expanding trade and financial flows. In this context, let us not forget the crucial role of China and Pacific Asia as booming economies. The Chinese Communist Party abandoned the socialist economic system set up in the first thirty years during the Mao Zedong era and its capitalist economic system formed a union with the red regime which is neither socialism nor democratic capitalism—a phenomenon that Dr. Cheng Xianomg, chief editor of Modern China and a scholar of China’s politics and economy based in New Jersey, refers to as the Communist Party’s capitalism. Dr.Xianomg comments how the party uses the capitalist economic system to strengthen its authoritarian regime, which is the essence of the Chinese model. China has adopted numerous reforms to open up the country’s economy since the 1970s, such that its ranking from ninth in 1978 has seen an increase to second only to the United States in 2016; its economic growth accelerated and its share of global nominal GDP rose from 2% in 1980 to 15% in 2016, as per the list compiled by the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook.[3]All these are accompanied by the demographic revolution that sharply polarises the developed-developing divide, drawing heavier boundaries between Global North and Global South. There is an extraordinary population decline in the industrialised world and the explosive growth in Asian countries, mostly China and India that are currently the two most populous nations in the world, which is leading to severe alterations in the distribution of resources and the nature of global market.

Amidst these rapid developments in the global economy that multiplied praxis of consumerist ideology. The 21st century consumerist philosophy is largely associated with what Madeline Levine saw as a large change in American culture as a shift away from values of community, spirituality and integrity and toward competition, materialism and disconnection. Emulation is a core component of 21st century consumerism. The patterns of conspicuous consumption in American life has been in fact criticised way back in early 20th century by German historian Oswald Splenger as life in America being exclusively economic in structure and lacking depth.[4] Contemporary critics include strong arguments in favour of remarks that human beings despite considering themselves civilised thinkers, are subconsciously still driven by an impulse for survival, domination and expansion, an impulse which now finds expression in the idea that inexorable economic growth is the answer to everything, and, given time, will redress all the world’s existing inequalities. Media theorist Straut Ewen coined the term ‘commodity self’ to describe an identity built by the goods we consume.[5]

An important element of the global economy is the consumption of the gifts of technology, what we better call as electronic gadgets. As globalisation continues to accelerate however, the rate of electronic products becoming outdated and inefficient is much faster. This is what results in electronic waste, or E-waste. E-waste is the new buzz word for discarded electronics. However, the consequences of this vast production of electronic waste are bore by the Asian nations mostly as there is a larger system of global waste trade being practiced by which the developed countries export their e-waste to the developing countries or Global South. The World Bank Report What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management, explains that generally, the higher the economic development and rate of urbanization, the greater the amount of solid waste produced and therefore, countries in the Global North, which are more economically developed and urbanized, produce more solid waste than Global South countries.[6] In this regard, this paper is a study on one such instance of global waste trade and the story of Guiyu in China, which is locally known as the “e-waste capital of the world”. Basel Action Network (BAN), a watchdog organisation started by Jim Puckett to help enforce the Basel Convention conducted an investigation of Guiyu in 2001, a region located in Southeast China near the city of Shantou in Guangdong province. This investigation has been formed as a documentary titled Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia by which BAN was able to bring Guiyu into international concern. The ironical background is in regard to the fact that the United States has not ratified the treaty of Basel Convention although being the world’s largest producer of e-waste per capita. The documentary begins with a narration by Puckett who claims that an estimate of 5 to 7 million tonnes of e-waste is produced in US every year. Thus naturally, as a responsible federal government, it strictly regulates rules of e-waste disposal as the citizens are ruled to send them to the recycler instead of throwing them in their own trash cans. To give an example is the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Land Disposal Restrictions under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Subtitle C hazardous waste management program—these rules restrict the land disposal (placement in landfills, primarily) of hazardous waste without prior approved programs.[7] The ‘disposal prohibition’ mandates that hazardous waste cannot be disposed on land until it is treated to meet specified characteristics (acceptable ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, and toxicity), or is treated by specified approved treatment methods. The ‘dilution prohibition’ proscribes adding large amounts of water, soil, or non-hazardous waste in-order to avoid specified treatment. The ‘storage prohibition’ allows waste to be stored only for the purposes of accumulating for treatment, rather than simply stored indefinitely to avoid treatment.

However, little to their knowledge is the fact that the recyclers are mostly waste distribution centres as 80% of the waste they receive are being exported to mostly Asian countries like India and China, winded up in large container ships, referred to as ‘toxic colonialism’ by Puckett. In fact, out of that, almost 90% end up in China. There is an intimate relationship between the consumers, waste distribution centres, brokers and the workers in imported countries— the wastes are sold by the recycling centres in US to a broker who is likely to export them. As Craig Lorch, Manager of Total Reclaim, an organisation created in 1991 dedicated to providing innovative recycling solutions for customers, ironically remarks, “It is all about the money.” Undoubtedly, once they are exported, the awareness about the remaining journey and fate of waste management is of little access to both consumers and recyclers. The fate of Asian nations is ignored ironically by the people themselves worsened by the acts of the exporting countries as export business has been blissfully profitable for them.

Further narrative in the documentary reveals that e-waste processing is estimated to have started around 1996 in Guiyu. Scanning through the four villages of Guiyu and discovering the hazardous activities being undertaken there, Puckett could not help but comment on how this shall provide the western world an idea of what the underbelly of our consumptive cyber-age lifestyle really looks like! He says, “In China, tens of thousands of migrant workers tear electronics apart with little more than their bare hands. With each smashed monitor and gutted printer, lead, mercury and other heavy metals enter the environment.” The operations are primitive, labour intensive and small scale. For the rural Chinese working class population, many work in blue collar jobs in rural towns, or in agriculture, but a significant portion of the rural masses also become migrant workers drawn by a higher income of working in or near the cities. There are around 277 million of these migrant workers who come from China’s interior to urban or semi-rural areas concentrated in the east, of which Guiyu is one such example. Many big SOEs focus on recruiting these migrant workers because are cheap labour who have incomes below the poverty line of 3000 Yuan/month back home in their rural areas. As China has minimum wages set significantly below the poverty line (as low as 2030Yuan/month even in developed cities), companies need only pay workers a small magnitude above the average levels of incomes in rural areas to incentivise them. This explains the higher concentration of migrants on the east coast where China’s most developed, tier 1 cities are located. This explains why export of e-waste is possible to be exported to countries like China—cheaper labour, lack of environmental standards in Asia and because export is still legal in USA.

A peaceful rice-growing region till six years ago, Guiyu started changing tremendously in very short time into a bustling junkyard. The consumption consequences of the West are being suffered by the fateful workers of Asian countries. What could be the reason? It is because in developed countries, due to the strict regulation, the cost of processing of electronic wastes is very high. Interestingly, supporters of this global waste trade have commented in this manner—Lawrence Summers, former President of Harvard University and Chief Economist of the World Bank, issued a confidential memo arguing for global waste trade in 1991. The memo stated, “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles. Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the least developed countries?”[8]

Bearing the brunt of the global economic lifestyles, Guiyu is one example among many similar third world regions. 60 year-old Mr Ling sums up, “For money, people have made a mess of this good farming village. After they have dismantled the computers, they burn the useless parts. Everyday villagers inhale this dirty air. They suffer from respiratory and skin problems. Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers cook, wash and drink from nearby wells, water of which is undrinkable.” Such socio-environmental consequences have also led to transformations in social and economic structures of relationships as exemplified by Puckett who gathers from Clement Lam, BAN Investigator and Interpreter that water has been trucked in from towns 30 km away for the last 5 years. However in spite of such onset of dangers, the population of Guiyu is ignorant of these impacts. What could be the reason? It is primarily due to a better livelihood option. Lured by the possibility of making 54 dollar a day’s work, residents of rural farming provinces mainly from interior China migrate to Guiyu to toil long hours to extract useful metals from the waste materials. Scavenging through the discarded items, for them, they are a source of gold, in other words, a source of income. There has also been a characteristic set up of shops by the migrant workers along the riverfront who subsist entirely from the burning of wires striped out from the imported computers. There is a larger sense of refusal to believe about the toxicity of the materials in part of the workers. As Allison Griner cites Shan Shan Chung, a biology professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who remarks, “Those workers, they come from poor areas, so they only focus on their short-term survival. When you are really poor, you don’t care what will happen to you in several years down the road.”[9] She refers about one of the workers, Xiao Qiong who claims to be earning the equivalent of $600 a month, ten times her salary as a waitress! Thus there is a strong sense of collective ignorance due to the satisfactory economic gain at the end of the spectrum. An appropriate sense can be derived from what Qiong remarks, “The smell from the fumes is not that strong and it is not too hot.”

A remarkable transition observed by Puckett during his 2015 visit to Guiyu joined by Lai Yun, a campaigner for Greenpeace based out of Hong Kong has described it as “The place is dead. Boarded up.” This is what Michael Standeart, a freelance journalist based in South China documents in his article titled ‘China’s notorious E-waste village disappears overnight!’ This account is in relation to China’s “war on pollution” announced by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the National People’s Congress in March 2013, by which the bustling yet heavily polluted town of Guiyu with 5000 or more informal e-waste workshops and dismantling factories has been cleared out. In fact, in ‘Electrical and electronic waste management in China: progress and barriers to overcome’, it has been said that in response to the inflow of e-waste, the Chinese government announced ban on the importation of e-waste, which came into force on August 15, 2002 but it did not succeed completely.[10]Orders were given by the Guangdong government that all e-waste processors in the town either move to the new e-waste industrial park by the end of 2015 or face severe power cuts or criminal prosecution if found outside the park—however, not much change could be seen in the parks as observed by Lai Yun as the technology and methodology have remained the same. It is mentioned that over the last few years, authorities have clamped down on the import of waste. However, this has failed to alter the scenario altogether as foreign import has been substituted by domestic production— the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology indicated that at the end of 2013, around 170 million electronic devices were disposed of domestically in China annually. Guiyu, Standeart says, now deals exclusively with e-waste produced in China, a country set to overtake the US as the world’s largest electronics consumer! Moreover, there is no total disappearance of the waste materials as they are being transported either to mainland China or heading to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand etc.

However, another part of the entire story of e-waste management also goes in favour of countries like USA which indeed have certain e-waste management policies. Jennifer Namias in her research paper titled ‘The future of electronic waste recycling in the United states: Obstacles and domestic solutions’ published in 2013, states, “Currently there is no U.S. Federal mandate to recycle electronic waste; however twenty five states have enacted legislation requiring state-wide e-waste recycling. Despite state-wide recycling efforts, it is estimated that 13.6%9 to 26.6%10 to e-waste is recycled in the U.S. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery report ‘Electronics Waste Management in the United States through 2009’, 2.44million short tons were ready for end-of-life management in 2010 (Table 4 below). Based on this estimated generation and the aforementioned U.S. e-waste recycling rates, approximately332,000 to 649,000 short tons of e-waste was recycled in the U.S. in 2010.” Moreover, considering solid waste in general, 50 states of USA and Washington D.C., have been importing more than 50 million tonnes more waste than they have exported since 1997, according to Bicycle, an industry publication.[11]

“Environmental degradation threatens to undermine the country’s growth and exhausts public patience with the pace of reform. It has also bruised China’s international standing and endangered domestic stability as the ruling party faces increasing scrutiny and public discontent.”, Eleanor Albert and Beina Xu in the article titled ‘China’s Environmental Crisis’, nevertheless, writes.[12] “Dynastic leaders who consolidated territory and developed China’s economy exploited natural resources in ways that contributed to famines and natural disasters. China’s current environmental situation is the result not only of policy choices made today but also of attitudes, approaches, and institutions that have evolved over centuries,” writes CFR’s Elizabeth C. Economy in The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future.[13]Environmental policy in China is signified by the role of the central government issuing fairly strict regulations, but the actual monitoring and enforcement is largely undertaken by local governments that have greater interest in economic growth. The environmental work of non-governmental forces, such as lawyers, journalists, and non-governmental organizations, is limited by government regulations. China's rapid economic expansion combined with the country's relaxed environmental oversight has caused a number of ecological problems. Encouraged by national policy that judges regions solely by their economic development, corrupt and unwilling local authorities have hampered enforcement. An interesting dimension to the status of e-waste management in China is the fact that leaving aside imported e-waste, even in case of the domestic waste, nearly 60% of the generated wastes were sold to private individual collectors and passed into informal recycling processes. More than 90% of Chinese citizens are reluctant to pay for the recycling of their e-wastes as they have a traditional understanding that there remained value in these end-life products.

Leaders like Puckett and Yun persuaded Western media to pay attention on the case of Guiyu. Their work generated features on Guiyu’s crisis by CNN, 60 Minutes and The New York Times. However, such efforts failed to suffice the responses and reactions from the workers as they believed that such attention threatened their livelihood. However is it only about their livelihood for which they are skeptic of such attention? May be not. There is in fact another larger political reason behind it that makes absolute sense in this overarching scenario. Since Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up (gaigekaifang) era, the media has led the way in manufacturing images about rural migrants and reinforcing prejudice against them. The term ‘migrant worker’ or ‘peasant’ has always had negative connotations, as Hsiao-Hung Pai writes in ‘China’s rural migrant workers deserve more respect from the city-dwellers’, either implying ignorance and lack of education or carrying a patronising tone, addressing passive masses receiving benevolence from the capitalist authorities.[14] As a matter of fact, it is disheartening to realise that the media has, since the 1980s and 1990s, began widely to use the term ‘blind flow’ to describe rural-to-urban migration or rural-to-rural migration, portraying an irrational out-of-control migration of labour. This negative language has long shaped public views and sentiments towards migrants, further developing prejudice. No wonder, Owen Jones, in his Claws: The Demonization of the Working Class, referred to the fact that the media lacks content and knowledge of the class they are belittling. There is a sense of prioritising the economic future of the town over the environmental and health hazards, as they credit the e-waste industry with lifting them from poverty. Not only in relation to waste industry or related low-grade livelihood opportunities, in fact there is statistical support of Chinese favouring capitalism more than ever—in the spring of 2014, Pew Research Center surveyed people across 44 different countries; particularly, reaction to a statement, i.e., “Most people are better off in a free market economy, even though some people are rich and some are poor.”, were surprisingly largely in its favour.[15] Approximately 76% of Chinese agreed to it. Heather Long remarks how notable the result is, given the fact that the communist government has presided over a decade of incredible economic growth of over 7% a year. Coming back to the e-waste workers, there is a growing fear among them of the driving away of recyclers because of the high costs of working at the park and also about the disappearance of the dismantling industry. No wonder, Puckett aptly remarks on the fact that people in Guiyu are left to choose from two options- ‘poverty’ or ‘poison’ of which they prefer the former at the risk of the latter.

 

References


[1]The Challenge of Global Capitalism: The World in the 21st Century, Retrieved on 20th May, 6:00 pm from http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/g/gilpin-capitalism.html

[2]Global waste trade, Retrieved on 20th May, 6:45 pm from http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_waste_trade

[3]List of countries by GDP (nominal), Retrieved on 21st May, 8:00 pm from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)

[4]Consumerism, Retrieved on 19th May, 7:00 pm from http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumerism

[5]Ibid.

[6]Global waste trade, op cit.

[7]The Development of Waste management law, Retrieved on 20th May, 9:30 pm from http://www.iswa.org/uploads/tx_iswaknowledgebase/538338

[8]Global waste trade, ibid.

[9]Looks are deceiving in Chinese town that was US e-waste dumping site, Retrieved on 19th May, 6:40 pm from http://www.revealnews.org/article/looks_are_deceiving_in_chinese_town_that_was_us_e-waste_dumping_site/

[10] Published in Waste Manage Res 2006, authored by Xianbing Liu et.al

[11]Global Waste, Retrieved on 21st May, 8:10 pm from http://zerowasteamerica.org/WasteTrade.html

[12]China’s Environmental Crisis,Retrieved on 20th May, 10:00 pm from http://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-environmental-crisis

[13] Ibid.

[14]China’s rural migrant workers deserve more respect from the city-dwellers, Retrieved on 21st May, 10:00 pm from http://www.the.guardian.com/commentisfree/2012/aug/25/china-rural-migrants-more-respect

[15]China’s government may be communist, but its people embrace capitalism, Retrieved on 21st May, 9:00 pm from www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/10/10/chinas_government_may_be_commnunist_but_its_people_embrace_capitalism/ft_14_10-9_china_freemarket/

 

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