America’s Digital Dumping Ground


What happens to your old electronics? They might not end up where you expect. In this podcast we trace the global trail of America’s electronic castoffs. Published in partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal.

It was believed to be the largest digital dumping ground in the world, a graveyard for abandoned LCD monitors, hard drives and printers. For decades, Guiyu, in southeast China, collected mounds of used computer equipment, to be stripped down and gutted for salvageable parts.

Much of this e-waste arrived from the United States, the country with the highest rates of e-waste production on the planet. Americans produce an estimated 9.4 million tonnes of electronic garbage each year. By 2017, the mounting e-waste worldwide will weigh almost as much as 200 Empire State Buildings, according to the StEP Initiative, an international coalition that studies the issue.

Cast-off electronics are the fastest growing form of waste in the U.S. today, thanks to the break-neck speed of technological advancements. Brand-name companies like Dell and Goodwill offer recycling programs to dispose of electronics safely and responsibly since they often contain toxic heavy metals like mercury and lead.

But rather than go to the expense of recycling the electronics domestically, these two brands have been linked to an illegal trade that sends American e-waste overseas. Federal law should prevent hazardous waste from being shipped abroad, but there’s a gaping loophole in the U.S. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act: Businesses can send their scrap overseas anyway, if they can show it has “recyclable” components.

That’s how old circuit boards and screens ended up in the hands of migrant workers in Guiyu. Technically they shouldn’t be there at all. Chinese law bars the import of hazardous waste, and international treaties like the Basel Convention explicitly state that developed countries shouldn’t dump their toxic trash on poorer countries.

And yet, hidden in shipping containers, the high-tech trash continues to evade detection. A recent study by the Basel Action Network, a watchdog group, found that one-third of the electronic waste it tracked from drop-off sites run by Goodwill and Dell ended up overseas, in places like Kenya, Pakistan and Thailand. But more often than not, they ended up in China.

Jim Puckett, co-founder of the Basel Action Network, first stumbled across Guiyu in 2001. The site was believed to be operating for decades, and it ran a deadly business. Trucks would rumble in, supplying an estimated 100,000 migrant workers with used electronics to break apart. Some would rip apart computers with their bare hands, to get at the motherboards inside. Those would then be cooked over open flames in woks.

The plastics would melt, and the lead would puddle in the bottom of the pan, leaving the copper and precious metals exposed for collection. All the while, poisonous fumes would rise from the flames, coating the soil with dioxins and contaminating the water.

Guiyu’s children had high levels of lead in their blood, and the workers themselves were often covered in toner ink and dust full of known carcinogens. Puckett observed that many of the workers were women, whose children were susceptible to higher rates of birth defects, lowered IQs and other maladies.

In 2009, the Global Reporting Centre travelled to Guiyu to report on the world’s largest e-waste dump, for a FRONTLINE/World documentary (which went on to win the Emmy for Best Investigation). GRC reporters snuck into e-waste shacks and tracked down dangerous acid baths, where hey were chased by thugs and police, audio of which was captured on their video cameras. An undercover meeting with an illegal e-waste trader demonstrated how brazen the practice was.

Late last year, the e-waste in Guiyu mysteriously disappeared. This episode of Reveal will investigate what happened to the millions of tonnes of electronics that used to line the streets for miles and miles. Working with medical researchers from nearby Shantou, we will explore whether lead and cadmium levels in children have begun to go down since the change. And we will investigate whether this clean-up was the result of genuine environmental policy changes, or just a public relations gimmick to hide the embarrassing e-waste dump and distribute it to smaller, less noticeable pockets throughout the country.