Photographers' Blog

Living on e-waste

June 4, 2014

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.

A waste recycle worker looks around a broken piano which he recently picked up from the street at the yard of his tenement house at Dongxiaokou village in Beijing May 14, 2014. This village is known as Beijing's biggest site for the disposal and recycling of electronic waste and it has been the home of E-waste collectors and recyclers for a decade.    REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA)

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.

A woman dismantles a broken air-conditioner to sell its parts as scraps at her tenement house at Dongxiaokou village in Beijing May 14, 2014. This village is known as Beijing's biggest site for the disposal and recycling of electronic waste and it has been the home of E-waste collectors and recyclers for a decade.    REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA)

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.

Mounds of garbage which abandoned by waste recyclers are seen at Dongxiaokou village in Beijing May 18, 2014. This village is known as Beijing's biggest site for the disposal and recycling of electronic waste and it has been the home of E-waste collectors and recyclers for a decade.    REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA)

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.

A waste recycle worker Gu Zhaofang is seen behind a blind on the door while he speaks on her mobile phone during a lunch break from washing air conditioners for recycling  at her tenement house at Dongxiaokou village in Beijing May 20, 2014. This village is known as Beijing's biggest site for the disposal and recycling of electronic waste and it has been the home of E-waste collectors and recyclers for a decade.    REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA)

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.

Children play on abandoned wood panels which waste recyclers had collected from a construction site, at Dongxiaokou village in Beijing May 18, 2014. This village is known as Beijing's biggest site for the disposal and recycling of electronic waste and it has been the home of E-waste collectors and recyclers for a decade.    REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA)

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.

A garbage collector carries a sack after finding scraps abandoned by waste recyclers at Dongxiaokou village in Beijing May 18, 2014. This village is known as Beijing's biggest site for the disposal and recycling of electronic waste and it has been the home of E-waste collectors and recyclers for a decade.    REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA)

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.

Comments
2 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

It is just impossible to escape propaganda against China, even on a tech news website. The truth is the ‘village’ is not representative of the Chinese e-waste management economy. It is not the ‘Big Picture’, it is a ‘Biased Picture’. see http://www.engadget.com/2014/06/08/urban -e-waste-economy

The underlying message of this article is that China is a dump where people work in slave like conditions. Which doesn’t have the slightest truth in it. Most of people in China work in acceptable conditions, and the the cities are as clean as they can be. Pollution is a very unfortunate side-effect of China producing goods for the world.

This is a typical example of focusing on a very small part of the Chinese economy and blowing it out of proportion. How could you call its ‘The Big Picture’ when you failed to consider all other workers working in in good conditions with proper wages? And where is the comparison to other countries sorting out their waste. I’m sure I can take a photo of someone working in a waste dump in any other country and write a negative story about it.

Whenever China appears in the media, the image has always been negative. Is it because there is no positive things happening in China, or could it be that the media will only report the negatives? China is made to look like this country that’s a huge threat to the world, very aggressive, invasive, and apparently a waste dump when it is quite the contrary. On aggression, it hasn’t invaded another country every other year, unlike the US. I’m not trying to say China is all good, but someone need to shed light on the fact that only the negative side of China is presented in media, not the positive side.

Hope we can all make some effort to make the media less biased in the future.

Posted by yzho8128 | Report as abusive
 

Great reporting. We need to know more about the people affected by the tech economy.

Posted by patfactorx | Report as abusive
 

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