There's a dark side to the digital age

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 April, 2008, 12:00am

The first to go is the cell phone, which you bought a year ago but is already outdated. Then you are tempted to get a digital camera because it is higher resolution. And why not get a new one if it's free?

You may also be eyeing a new notebook because your current one is slow and thick, and it always freezes. And you just have to have Nintendo Wii and a High Definition television.

Living in 21st century Hong Kong, we indulge in technology in every part of our daily lives. Companies release new models more frequently than ever, and fashion-conscious customers constantly look for new devices.

But by the time a new device gets to the consumer, it is already obsolete.

So what happens to yesterday's stuff? Hongkongers seldom think about this because it seems easy to dispose of electronic waste.

But it isn't. That waste travels hundreds of kilometres away to the peasants and their children in Guiyu, Guangzhou, who have received billions of tonnes of dead gadgets from affluent countries over the past decades.

E-waste contains deadly chemicals like lead, mercury, nickel and copper which poison the environment and the people. Since many developed countries prohibit the dumping of e-waste to prevent contamination at home, most waste is shipped to developing countries, particularly China, Pakistan, India and Vietnam for recycling.

This is an industry that is uglier than you might think.

Nicknamed the capital of e-waste or the electronic graveyard, Guiyu has lured almost 100,000 workers into the recycling business since the 1990's. They use primitive methods to salvage the waste - stripping metals in acid baths, burning the plastic from computer cables to expose the copper, breaking down monitors to get lead and disposing of unsalvageable materials in fields and on riverbanks.

These waste-miners work with bare hands, exposing themselves to carcinogenic toxins for the pittance they get from selling the collected metals to scrap-metal buyers.

Baptist University biology professor Wong Ming-hung, has carried out a thorough study of the pollution problem in Guiyu.

'When I visited Guiyu two years ago, the whole town stank,' Professor Wong said. 'Labourers burned plastic in closed spaces with no ventilation, and there was trash everywhere. The soil, rivers and air were polluted. Many workers suffered health problems.'

The shocking consequences of the 'green business' at Guiyu were first disclosed to western media in 2002 by Basel Action Network (Ban), a non-profit organisation which combats toxic waste export to developing countries.

Studies have been carried out to determine the effect all this pollution has on residents and their environment.

Professor Wong says there are higher levels of dioxins and heavy metals in the environment than is commonly accepted.

This can damage people's health and even cause cancer.

A mainland study finds that the amount of lead in the blood of children in Guiyu is 88 per cent higher than normal. Journalists have reported increasing numbers of children developing cancer in the region.

Since then the Central Government has tightened its control of waste imports.

Professor Wong says according to his students who visit Guiyu, things are better. But he suspects there are still many illegal recycling businesses.

E-waste affects Hong Kong too. Friends of the Earth has discovered five 'e-trash mountains' in the northern New Territories. As this waste is left in open spaces, the organisation warns, harmful materials contaminate the soil, and eventually the water.

The price of technology is high. While we pay for it with money, we make the real environmental cost someone else's problem. We need to think twice about buying gadgets.