Living on e-waste
Dongxiaokou village, China
By Kim Kyung-Hoon
Dongxiaokou village lies just on the outskirts of Beijing, but a trip there does not really offer a pleasant escape from the city centre. For Dongxiaokou is no ordinary village: it is a hub for rubbish.
For years, the area has been home to people who make their living by collecting and recycling electrical and electronic waste – from abandoned air-conditioners to fridges and TV sets. Several hundred families work to gather this “e-waste” from people in wealthy, downtown Beijing.
No one knows the exact number of people involved because many are migrant workers who don’t have licenses for their recycling businesses or permanent residency permits through China’s “hukou” system. They live on the margins in more senses than one, and as summer approached I went to document their lives.
When I arrived, I found the yards of the small tenement houses filled with stacks of abandoned air-conditioners. Villagers take apart these broken units and fix them, then hand them over to wholesale dealers who usually sell the machines to new owners in other rural provinces.
E-waste that cannot be recycled has a different destination: it is simply sold as scrap, flogged for 1RMB (16 cents) per kilogram after being dismantled by the recycler’s hammer and axe.
The amount of e-waste out there is growing and growing. China is now the planet’s second biggest producer of it, only behind the United States, according to information from a 2013 environmental conference. But villagers in Dongxiaokou have not really profited that much from the boom in electronic cast offs.
During my trip I spoke to Gu Zhaofang, whose husband has been collecting abandoned electrical goods in downtown Beijing for ten years. The couple work together to fix, clean and dismantle the waste, seven days a week, from early in the morning until night.
Each day, they are able to recycle about two or three air conditioners, and they earn around 50 RMB ($8) for each one. With this meagre amount, they have to pay more than 1,000 RMB (about $160) to rent their small brick house and send money back to family in their poor hometown in Henan province. They survive on the little cash that remains.
Conditions in the village are dirty. Dongxiaokou is short of proper sewage disposal and tap water; sanitation facilities are almost non-existent.
Pollutants from the recycling and disposal process have turned the water a strange colour, and the small stream in the village is tainted with a rancid smell. Mounds of abandoned garbage that cannot be recycled surround Dongxiaokou and children play on piles of waste.
According to the World Health Organization, direct contact with certain materials from e-waste can be dangerous – especially for youngsters. What’s more, just dismantling the equipment itself can cause injuries.
But this is not something that bothers the villagers, who just want to get by. The poorer garbage collectors, who cannot afford their own recycling business, hunt for leftovers from the others, digging up the polluted soil with their bare hands to find the last scraps of metal that have been left behind.
The costs of recycling, both to the environment and their own health, are far from the villagers’ minds. Many, instead, are concerned about the fact that Dongxiaokou is now facing demolition to make way for an ambitious urbanisation program.
Residents are worried about losing their homes and work. They don’t know where to go in the future with their e-waste. Once it was trash, but now it’s their treasure.