Stench of burning plastic fills air as e-waste yields its heavy metals

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 2010, 12:00am

The town stinks.

It was the stench that told environmentalists they had arrived at Guiyu, a mainland hub for recycling electronic waste.

Government statistics show 80 per cent of Hong Kong's e-waste is exported, but Friends of the Earth says Hongkongers cannot imagine how bad conditions are at the places where the city's trash ends up.

Part of Shantou city, Guangdong province, Guiyu is a town infamous for the role it plays in 'recycling' e-waste. Workers are exposed to serious health risks as they work, unprotected, on toxic heavy metals, members of the green group say.

In November, they paid a five-day visit to Guiyu. They had been dozing in a taxi during the six-hour drive from Hong Kong but were woken by the pungent odour of burning plastic.

They found one man heating chipsets from mobile phones on a stove, the way people roast a squid, Michelle Au Wing-tsz recalls. Valuable metal components are extracted from the chips' plastic base, the group's senior environmental affairs officer says.

The man working on the chipset was not even wearing a mask.

The clandestine roasting of chips flourishes although the provincial government has banned it.

Another forbidden practice - extracting gold from the chips using acid - likely occurs at night, the group says. Basins of acid and chemicals were seen near a workshop next to a river, but nobody was working there during the day.

Members of the group did not see any work being done after dark but caught whiffs of a sour smell that was probably from the acid. Dark smoke, black against a grey sky, came from the workshops.

Two bunches of vegetables were taken from a farm next to a recycling workshop and tested for heavy metal content. The visitors found 39.4 parts per million of lead in them, 6.6 times Hong Kong's legal maximum. Friends of the Earth cites research by Professor Huo Xia of Shantou University's medical college showing that the lead in the blood of 71 per cent of Guiyu children has reached lead-poisoning levels, according to United States standards.

Heavy metals harm human health, but their effect is greater in children than in adults. High levels of lead may affect children's nervous systems and impair intelligence.

There is no proof Guiyu's trash comes from Hong Kong, but given the town's proximity, it is likely to be the case, Friends of the Earth says.

Hahn Chu Hon-keung, another group member, says he has seen trucks containing e-waste driving across the border to the mainland, but is not sure where they were going.

The Environment Bureau is running a consultation on introducing legislation to implement a mandatory producer-responsibility scheme for the proper management of electronic waste.

The bureau proposes that bulky electrical appliances, electronic equipment and computer products be banned from disposal as ordinary rubbish but recycled separately.

Friends of the Earth hopes the government will have passed the legislation by next year and that recycling of Hong Kong's e-waste will be regulated properly.

Not in our backyard

80 per cent of Hong Kong's electronic waste is exported

Proportion of Guiyu's children with lead in their blood at lead-poisoning levels by US standards: 71%