E-Waste Work: Hierarchies of Value and the Normalization of Pollution in Guiyu
E-Waste Work: Hierarchies of Value and the Normalization of Pollution in Guiyu
Abstract and Keywords
The last substantive chapter examines a third case study which differs in important ways from the first two. Unlike Baocun and Qiancun, Guiyu town is a well-known, indeed a notorious environmental health hotspot. Pollution is caused by a vast and complex cottage industry processing electronic waste. Chapter 5 explores how such “e-waste work” became closely embedded within the local community, family and social relations, as domestic and work spaces were inextricably blurred. It disaggregates the black box of “e-waste work” to show how it evolved over time, the great diversity that composes the sector, how the government attempted to regulate particular activities within it and why their efforts were not fully effective. It shows that, as in Baocun and Qiancun, the economic benefits and environmental costs of these activities are unevenly distributed. By describing a range of diverse e-waste workers engaged in a spectrum of more or less polluting work, the chapter illustrates how locals fashion counter-discourses of relative harm to excuse their practices and avoid blame. In these circumstances, as in Baocun, toxicity is naturalised and parameters of health are adjusted to normalise and accept widespread pollution-induced ailments.
At eight a.m. on a hot June day, Juanjuan and I found ourselves accidentally locked inside her brother’s large rented workshop in downtown Guiyu.1 Sometimes referred to as “the e-waste dump of the world,” Guiyu has specialized over the past three decades in trading and processing e-waste, a catch-all term for discarded or waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) such as computers, TVs, VCRs, DVD players, stereos, telephones, and mobile phones, as well as “white” electronic goods, such as washing machines or air conditioning units. Guiyu has gained considerable notoriety since the turn of the millennium, as shocking images of pollution circulated in the domestic and foreign media in the wake of a damning report by the BAN (Basel Action Network 2002). The town’s abysmal reputation posed significant hurdles to conducting fieldwork, since locals were keen to avoid any more bad press.2 Indeed, on my very first visit the previous year, I was accompanied by my academic host Professor Li Liping’s secretary, and I was not even allowed to step out of the car for fear that locals would be aggressive toward an obvious outsider. As luck would have it, one of the first year medical students, eighteen-year-old Juanjuan, was from a town on the fringes of Guiyu, and she kindly offered to host me at her family home. Through her family’s extensive networks and their own engagement in e-waste work (a shorthand I use for convenience to include both e-waste processing and trade), Juanjuan quickly became my key contact, entry point, and lifeline in Guiyu. Given all these difficulties in gaining access, it now seemed to be quite an achievement to be stuck there.
Juanjuan’s family home was not conveniently placed for the main e-waste trade route, so her brother rented this workshop to trade plastic (see figure 5.1). Most of the space was occupied by hundreds of bags of tiny (p.126)
plastic pellets, piled as tall as the five-meter-high ceiling. There was a small and simple toilet in one corner, and one section was screened off from the rest of the workshop as a living space. A water cooler, a fan, a low table, and some low seats were arranged along the wall, near the double bed where Juanjuan and I had just spent the night. Trade was going through a slow phase, with prices at an all-time low, so the pellets sat there waiting for a more profitable time to change hands and to be eventually refashioned into new plastic goods.
Juanjuan made a string of phone calls, and eventually her cousin—also a trader—reached us on his motorbike from her natal village ten minutes away and unlocked the heavy metal door, finally releasing us onto the street. Juanjuan asked him repeatedly if we could follow him for the day on his trading visits, but he flatly refused, explaining that having a foreigner around would compromise his sales and make his customers suspicious. I could fully understand why, and I found myself wishing, not for the first time during fieldwork in China’s polluted areas, that I could have made myself invisible.
(p.127) Despite everyone’s claim that the market was slow, Juanjuan and I were woken up at five a.m. by the sound of heavy traffic. Lorries converged onto the town after a few hours on the road from the previous cog in the e-waste trading machine, most likely Guangzhou and Nanhai. By the time we were released from our impromptu captivity, most large deliveries seemed to have taken place. Still, the road was fairly busy with the occasional lorry and several rickshaws transporting smaller loads. Dismantled plastic casing from PCs, electrical wires, discarded earphones, and old keyboards whizzed past as we made our way across the dusty road. A middle-aged, heavily tanned man (surely a sign he spent much time outdoors) raked bits of old keyboards off the back of a lorry. Down a smaller side street, other workers raked small plastic colorful pellets recently washed so they would dry more efficiently. These relatively lighter jobs were more common among locals, while migrants often took on physically more strenuous or more harmful jobs, just as in Baocun.
As folkloristic as the scene was, I knew I could not take any pictures. Outsiders were eyed with deep suspicion in Guiyu, all the more when they were as visibly foreign as I am. Things were made worse by the latest string of media reports aired on China Central Television about the grim environmental health conditions in the town.3 Local residents and local officials were on high alert to avoid any more negative publicity, and a white face is typically associated with just that. To mitigate the danger of running into confrontational workshop owners, or, worse still, local police, I took to keeping an umbrella very close to my head (which also helped shelter me from the scorching sun), making my face barely visible but only to those closest to me. On one occasion, I was sure a policeman scrutinized me from the other side of the road, and I quickly walked away with Juanjuan to a nearby market, to hide at the stall where one of her relatives worked. My heart skipped a beat every time a car slowed down, or when the police drove past. I sometimes found myself wishing for the lack of attention I mustered in Qiancun. The expression in my native Venetian dialect, “a volte massa, a volte massa poco” (sometimes it’s too much, sometimes not enough) frequently came to mind. Not that I was doing anything illegal: I had a research visa and all the required permissions, and I did not have to register with the local police unless I spent more than three days in a row in the area. But the suspense was emotionally tiring.
(p.128) I was extremely relieved when Juanjuan’s friend Lindi whisked us off to his workshop. Lindi was in his early twenties and the third of eight brothers. He lived a stone’s throw from Juanjuan’s home and given its large size, his family had ten mu (6,667 square meters), a sizable amount of farmland. He and his siblings helped with the two harvest seasons, and they sold the produce from one season while keeping the winter crop for family consumption. This barely covered costs, however, so Lindi and his brothers, like most locals, looked for other sources of income. For Lindi, this came in the shape of CD drives, which he bought by weight, dismantled into more than ten parts, which he resold mostly by weight. Because space was limited in his village home, and the location not convenient for trade, he rented a small, simply built bare brick warehouse on the fringes of Guiyu, on the shores of the Lian River, just off the main road and surrounded by farmland. He worked alone most of the time, and relied on help from his family during particularly busy periods. This was not one of them.
Riding on the back of Lindi’s motorbike with Juanjuan, I put on my cap and large sunglasses and kept one hand over my mouth. This provided some minimal protection from the dust and the distinctively sweet and eye-watering smell of burning plastic. But for the most part, I was trying to avoid being spotted. Once we reached his workshop, I could finally peel off my makeshift disguise, sit back on a low plastic stool (most probably made from recycled material), and relax. The warehouse was large enough to park his motorized rickshaw and to store some goods (see figure 5.2). As in Juanjuan’s brother’s workspace, a small makeshift area was carved out from the main space as the living quarters. The room was barely ten meters square, and tightly packed with a double bed surmounted by a mosquito net, a plastic and metal dining table, a small wardrobe, and a small desk on which sat an old CRT television, and a few small parts from the last CD drive he dismantled. Lindi smiled apologetically about the messy state of the room, “I’m sure you can’t take this!” I quickly rebutted: “Of course I can. It’s very interesting. I’m glad you have time.” He sat down and sighed: “It’s hard to get by nowadays.” When business was thriving, Lindi slept at his workshop, but with stricter controls since the previous year and a drop in the price of metals, few were willing to trade. He showed me receipts for his recent transactions, which were only every fortnight. “You see, there’s no work!” (p.129)
Lindi patiently explained his work while we tucked into some piping hot changfen (a sort of rice flour cannelloni filled with vegetables and meat) and sipped cold tea made with herbal remedies to help relieve the body from the summer heat. He bought whole CD drives and first divided them into the plastic case, the metal case, and the reader (figures 5.3 and 5.4). The first two were sold by weight. The reader, if reusable, became an “end-product” (chengpin), and was sold whole. Lindi could tell easily if readers were still working, and also where they had been manufactured, based on the quality of the plastic and their serial numbers. When readers no longer functioned, he separated them into smaller parts, including a magnetized flat tape drive, and a smaller core inside the reader. He said taking the reader’s core apart was laborious and not very lucrative, so he sold them whole, after extracting two small magnets, which were also sold by weight. He recalled that after the 2011 tsunami in Japan, these magnets were in high demand, but now they were no longer so valuable. “I wish there was another earthquake,” he joked. He sold the rest of the reader to a friend who dismantled it and made a small profit from selling microchips and copper parts. (p.130)
(p.131) Different dismantled components of CD drives sat in large plastic bags neatly organized around the warehouse. Some bags contained small strips of magnetic tape, others various plastic parts, others the reader. In one corner, he piled the metal casing and the plastic casing, separating dark from light. I remembered seeing similar piles near Juanjuan’s home, and was pretty sure they must have been products of his work (see figure 5.5). He quickly dismissed those piles: “They’re just worth a few yuan.” He estimated when business was good he could earn thousands of yuan in a day. If he employed workers, he might only make two or three hundred per day, but he never did, relying instead on relatives to help. “End-products” such as working readers, sold for one yuan each, earning him a few hundred yuan per time, and only requiring “light work.” Small circuit boards inside CD players sold for twenty yuan a kilo. Some of the capacitors that could be detached from the circuit boards with pliers could become end products (to be refitted as capacitors in a new circuit board), but most were sold by weight at two yuan per kilo and melted to extract their little aluminum content. When he accumulated enough goods, Lindi made a string of calls
(p.132) to double-check the going rate for his materials. He hired a rickshaw for three yuan or a truck for ten yuan, loaded the large recycled bags, and took them to the weighing station, where he was charged three yuan to weigh each load. When he traded with familiar customers, he skipped the weighing process and they agreed on a price based on trust.
Lindi was quick to point out that his business was not among the most lucrative, and certainly not polluting. Metal melting and refining—which involved extracting metals such as gold with aqua regia, a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid—were the real culprit, and provided the biggest income. Given the severe levels of pollution, few women took these jobs, which were typically the domain of migrant men. “Circuit boards are burnt at very high temperatures and metals flow out. That smoke is very poisonous, but it is a big earner; everyone wants to do it. You may invest hundreds of thousands of yuan, but you will earn it all back in one or two months. I went near one of those ovens once. It’s forty or fifty degrees [Celsius] in those rooms. From half a kilo of good circuit boards, you could make almost one hundred yuan; if you could refine five kilos of metals you earn over a million.” Would you do that job, I asked? “No, you can lose a few years of your life just doing it for a year. Now these businesses are all hiding in the mountains and working at night. If you want to refine metals, you call them. The minimum quantity is fifty kilos (of circuit boards), you agree on where to meet, you hand over the material for them to process. You can call in the middle of the night and they will do it. But with stricter checks and low value for metals now, even the bigger metal refining workshops are losing money.”
This ethnographic vignette raises many questions that will be explored in the course of this chapter: How has e-waste work become so deeply embedded within the local social, political, and economic context? How are costs and benefits distributed? How does this affect the ways in which locals regard e-waste work and its potentially noxious effects? How does e-waste work affect their subjectivity? Understanding the role of e-waste work for local residents requires thinking more critically about all its different components and the vastly different processes it comprises. In turn, this allows us to grasp the conflicting elements that workers, residents, and workshop bosses must face when they decide whether to engage in a particular line of work, whether to live in Guiyu or move out, and whether potential economic benefits are worth sacrificing their health and the (p.133) health of their families. This case provides another example of the ways in which expectations for what constitutes a healthy life or a clean environment are powerfully shaped by the pervasiveness of pollution. For the most part, residents are actively resigned to living in harmful surroundings and yet endeavor to emancipate themselves from blame for bringing them about.
Making Sense of E-Waste
Researching citizens’ attitudes toward pollution, its health effects, and the actions they may take against pollution and its perpetrators is no easy task anywhere, least of all in China. Doing it in a media hotspot is all the more challenging. In Baocun and Qiancun, pollution, inequalities, and the plight of the poorest are largely invisible, like in so many other places throughout China, and more globally, no doubt. The almost thirty villages that make up Guiyu Town occupy their diametrical opposite on the spectrum of media coverage. The pattern of local development is also different. Whereas in Baocun and Qiancun there was initially one main, state-owned firm, and locals only later became involved in sideline activities, in Guiyu local residents were the main engine of development. For the most part, until 2013, e-waste processing businesses remained relatively small-scale, operating in residential areas, based in people’s homes and their courtyards. Despite these differences, a comparison between Baocun and Qiancun, and Guiyu is fruitful. The sense that pollution is inevitable pervades locals’ accounts as it did in Baocun and Qiancun. In this chapter, I explore how and why acquiescence toward pollution is engendered in Guiyu and with what effects.
The category of e-waste is as immensely broad and complex as the processes involved in the reuse and recycling of these goods and their components. Some of these processes are relatively clean and involve separating working components (batteries, screens, microchips) from outdated or faulty machines and reusing them in the production of new goods. Others, however, are less salubrious, most notoriously when they involve “baking” circuit boards and using aqua regia and other acids to recover valuable metals such as gold. Without appropriate disposal or waste treatment mechanisms, acids are dumped into nearby streams and the air is polluted with heavy metals and dioxins released by burning waste. Such contamination (p.134) may be extremely harmful to human health, particularly to children (Brigden et al. 2005; Huo et al. 2007).
Reports by the media and by environmental campaigners, foreign and Chinese alike, have emphasized the highly toxic nature of this business (Baldé et al. 2015; Brigden et al. 2005; Rucevska et al. 2015; Wang et al. 2013). The frequent implication is that Guiyu’s inhabitants and migrant workers lack much awareness of the damage they cause to the environment and to themselves; that they mostly lack a moral compass, and that economic benefit rules supreme in their life choices. In this chapter, I debunk this rather superficial portrayal. Pollution in Guiyu is indeed severe: the water is undrinkable, small streams are so thick with pollution they hardly flow, and fields are seriously contaminated. But e-waste work, as all those I encountered in Guiyu were predictably keen to highlight, is not always noxious. Focusing only on the most toxic processes of recycling would severely distort and simplify a rather more nuanced picture.4 As the above ethnographic vignette illustrates, the common stereotype of shrewd, selfish, evil traders and recyclers, who care about nothing but financial gain and ruthlessly spoil the surrounding environment and locals’ health, is partial and misguided.
In order to grasp the complexity and diversity of e-waste work, more attention is required to the historical, social, political, and economic contexts of its development. In what follows, I provide some background on the historical development of e-waste work and its wider regional, national, and global economies. I show that it involves a wide spectrum of activities and occupations, with uneven gains and losses, and a similarly uneven distribution of environmental health harm. This underpins the often conflicting perceptions of e-waste among the local community. Indeed, the conceptual and material ambiguity of e-waste as both waste and commodity lies at the core of how workers and local communities perceive e-waste. The term “scalvaging,” a fusion of scavenging and salvaging, conveys the mixed attitude and mixed identity of the materials and goods recycled as both waste and resource (Kirby and Lora-Wainwright 2015b; see also Lepawsky and Mather 2011). To uncover these multifaceted attitudes and practices, I provide some detailed descriptions of the experiences, views, and values of those involved in e-waste work, and the ways in which family and broader social relations intersect with it and facilitate it. This illustrates that even residents of a notoriously noxious place like Guiyu, who—by (p.135) virtue of having established themselves as one of the e-waste work hubs par excellence—are so frequently blamed for pollution, put forward counternarratives of relative harm and morality that excuse and legitimize their practices (see Lora-Wainwright 2016). Given the huge diversity of those involved in e-waste work, I provide brief accounts of some very successful businesses, of the poor conditions of migrant workers at the other extreme, and the vast space in between, which is occupied by small, modestly successful family-based processing and trading.
The Evolution of E-Waste Work: Wealth, Specialization, and Crisis
Guiyu has a population of roughly one hundred and fifty thousand, more than one hundred thousand of them migrant workers from the surrounding area, as well as other parts of China. More than 80 percent of local families are involved in e-waste businesses. Although reliable statistical data on e-waste trade and processing in China is virtually nonexistent given their murky legal status (Tong and Wang 2012; Wang et al. 2013), estimates suggest there are over five thousand family workshops processing between twenty and fifty million tons of e-waste per year (Chi et al. 2011).5 Due to its lowland morphology, the area is prone to flooding, making agriculture an unreliable source of livelihood. Guiyu’s poor farming conditions were in part the reason why locals turned to alternative livelihoods. The presence of convenient trade routes and a historical experience with trade allowed the development of waste recycling since the 1950s, and after economic reforms this became a vital source of livelihood (Zhang 2009, 982; the author’s interviews with local residents, 2013).
Juanjuan’s father, Uncle Tao, a disarmingly friendly and honest man in his forties, explained that the town had been very poor until recently. In the 1940s and 1950s many locals died of starvation. The situation did not improve much after the founding of Communist China in 1949, and in the 1960s and 1970s many tried to escape by swimming to nearby Hong Kong. Some drowned trying, and being caught would entail incarceration. Uncle Tao’s account emphasized the uneven fortunes of the locality and how desperately poor people had been.
With the advent of economic reforms since the 1980s, after the death of Mao, much of south and coastal China, particularly Guangdong province (where Guiyu is located), has become a global manufacturing hub. (p.136) Following the pattern typical of this area, large factories sit alongside smaller family businesses run by local entrepreneurs who capitalize on their kinship networks. Indeed, the region surrounding Guiyu comprises several other enterprises, which, those involved in e-waste work are keen to highlight, are also severely polluting. Among them are embroidery, textile manufacturing and dyeing, underwear factories, and toy factories. The toy factories also serve as one of the primary recipients of recycled plastic and microprocessors from Guiyu. Rocketing land prices are evidence of the economic success of the region. In a fully urbanized “village” in downtown Guiyu—where all farmland has been occupied by real estate development—a home of one hundred square meters costs millions of yuan, an unimaginable sum for a village anywhere in China. In nearby towns, in the early 2000s a square meter of land cost a few hundred yuan, but ten years later the cost climbed to eighty or ninety thousand.
The economy of the region, which forms the foundations of China’s economic miracle, thrives by exploiting a vast underclass of migrants as wage laborers who have little job security, are regarded as uncivilized and backward outsiders, and are quickly dismissed when business is slow (Lee 2007; Pun 2005). Sprawling towns like Shenzhen (formerly a village, now a massive manufacturing axis) have become magnets for young men and women from poorer rural regions in search for work. Likewise, Guiyu’s growing reputation as a center for e-waste dismantling attracted migrant workers who in turn provided the cheap labor force needed to fuel the industry’s success.
According to Uncle Tao, the e-waste processing and trading developed gradually. “In the past, we got all this rubbish for free. Then more and more of us became involved in this business. Foreigners realized we made money so they started to charge us. Say I was the first to take waste; I may even be paid to take it. Then my neighbor might find out, and they may go to the US to get it, and then they [traders in the US] would start charging. And the price would grow. To begin with, it’s waste! But now we pay for it.” At first, much of the e-waste processed in Guiyu came from abroad and seemingly evaded repeated efforts to regulate its flows given its key role in the local economy and government’s tax revenue (Tong and Wang 2012). As domestic consumption has grown, however, so has the influx of domestic e-waste that increasingly sustains Guiyu’s e-waste-related activities (Minter 2013).6
(p.137) Through the three decades or so in which e-waste processing developed in this area, it has become highly specialized: each village is devoted to different parts of the process and to different components—some streets are covered in signs for microchips, others advertise widely for several types of plastic, yet others offer “circuit board baking” (shao ban)—a technique by which circuit boards are heated so that the valuable parts, particularly metals, can be extracted or melted off easily. Having witnessed Guiyu’s extraordinary success, nearby towns have also become increasingly involved with e-waste and plastic trade and recycling (see figures 5.6 and 5.7).
Given the hardship they had experienced, even in recent memory, locals enthusiastically embraced e-waste as a livelihood opportunity without much awareness of the pollution it could cause:
When we first started, not a single person in the older generation knew that plastic would pollute; you cannot blame them. People did it to survive. If you had told them from the start how big the impact on the environment was they would not have dared to do it and the problems we have now would not exist. Now everyone is doing this business, and all of a sudden you tell them to stop: it’s impossible. … The
biggest responsibility is on the economy, for the sake of development we sacrificed the environment, and what’s more we don’t have skills, we can only work at the low-end.
—Li, a man in his twenties, operating a plastic processing workshop, 2013.
As this account suggests, the current heavy reliance on e-waste-related activities as a source of livelihood makes it unlikely, if not impossible, that locals would abandon it overnight. Divergent interests and incentives by central state authorities (which promote environmental protection) and local governments (which prioritize economic growth) produce a fertile middle ground for e-waste work to continue. Local entrepreneurs exploit the sporadic implementation of environmental protection mandates, which is the key to their economic success. Businesses most often operate with the overt or covert approval of local government bureaus, which draw extensive tax revenues from e-waste-related activities. Heavy dependence on e-waste work and the local government’s collusion with e-waste businesses go some way to explain locals’ defiant attitudes toward attempts to (p.139) regulate their activities. Taking a diachronic perspective on e-waste work in Guiyu reveals the contrast between poverty in the recent past—still very vivid in people’s memories—and the recent meteoric economic rise of the region. This shift powerfully informs current attitudes to e-waste work and the complicit attitude towards its potential harm.
While policies and regulations failed to bring e-waste trade and processing under control, the global economic crisis of 2008 delivered a severe blow to local businesses. All interview subjects, without exception, talked of the negative effects of the crisis. Those trading raw materials were hit most harshly. As capacitor recycler, Guo, explained: “In 2008 the price of copper declined by 60 percent, goods that were worth one million yuan became worth only 300,000 yuan overnight, so traders didn’t want to sell. If they did, their savings decreased, so those who couldn’t resist went bankrupt” (author interview, June 2013). PC dismantler Linge further elaborated that the entire business was a chain, so if raw material traders were unwilling to trade their goods, other recyclers (like him) were also affected.
Renewed efforts to curb e-waste trade and processing in Guiyu in 2012 and 2013 deepened the effects of the crisis. These were part of broader efforts by the Chinese government to loosen the informal sector’s grip on recycling, and to formalize such processes and centralize them in large, state-certified complexes (Tong, Li, Tao, and Cai 2015; see also Tong and Wang 2012; Tong and Yan 2013). As Schulz (2015) very aptly argued, these efforts were not purely driven by a sustainability agenda, but also by political and economic incentives.7 The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) banned metal refining and severely polluting plastic waste and emphasized the need to close or move polluting industries, upgrade recycling facilities, and stop the flow of illegal waste (Ministry of Environmental Protection 2013b, 32; Ministry of Environmental Protection 2013c). Guangdong province responded by issuing further demands to the municipal level to reform e-waste dismantling and establish a circular economy park in Guiyu (China Environment Net 2012; Shantou City Environmental Protection Bureau Net 2013). TCL—one of China’s biggest consumer appliance manufacturers—apparently invested in the industrial park, but, until late 2013, the park still had not been established (see Lora-Wainwright 2016).8 Uncle Tao was skeptical of this and similar plans, and regarded them as just another plot by the local government to expropriate and sell land: “They just hang a banner, but they don’t have the right equipment.”
(p.140) Epidemiological studies carried out in the area may serve as an objective measure of the two periods of slowdown caused by the economic crisis (2009) and by severe crackdowns (2012). Professor Huo Xia has been measuring lead content in Guiyu children’s blood for several years. Her data showed a sharp decline in 2009. Indeed, levels were so low that her research team at first thought they had made a mistake. In fact, at that time many workshops closed and thousands of migrants returned to their hometowns, some of them famously riding their motorbikes all the way back to Sichuan. Blood lead levels increased slightly in 2010, and then decreased again in 2011, and even more in 2012 when the more severe restrictions came into force (my personal communication with Huo, June 2013).
Another sign of growing regulation and monitoring was the presence of a privately owned “environmental testing” office. Opened in 2010 in collaboration with a Shenzhen-based company, this office offered a certification service, to ensure that products complied with international standards as required by potential buyers. Local workshop owners brought samples of their products (including plastic pellets, electronic components, and metals) to be tested for quality assurance. Tests cost thirty yuan, and the office provided customers with a full report and a certificate to show to potential buyers. According to the soft-spoken middle-aged man who set up this office, large companies were wary of fakes, but this certificate gave them peace of mind. He also explained that testing was a self-regulating exercise: only local workshops that were fairly confident their products would meet the standards would subject their products to testing. “Otherwise, why would they come to test? It would be a waste of money!” In other words, some local businesses no doubt continue to produce substandard material, but quality assurance is a growing concern. Ironically, this concern with the low quality of Chinese manufacturing influenced his own choice when he purchased the testing equipment. He invested 480,000 yuan for foreign-made equipment—instead of buying Chinese-made equipment for a fifth of the cost—because he feared the tests would not be accurate (and therefore would not be trusted by buyers).
As a whole, the evolution of e-waste work over the past three decades is characterized by the town’s growing dependence on it as a foremost means of livelihood. As e-waste work developed, it became more specialized and more integrated within local family, social, and entrepreneurial networks. E-waste work has grown to be inseparable from family life, both (p.141) spatially—homes and workshops overlap—and socially, as businesses rely on family collaborations and support, and conversely families depend on e-waste for their livelihood. The frequent collusion of e-waste work and local government interests further enabled the former to weather regulatory and economic pressures. Because of its deep embedding within local life, e-waste work in Guiyu has shown remarkable resilience until recently. Such a symbiotic relationship between e-waste work and the local social, political, and economic context powerfully affects local attitudes to the potential harm of e-waste work, and it may explain the sometimes ambivalent, yet resigned, attitudes of locals toward the pollution it may entail. Of course, such attitudes differ across the socioeconomic spectrum. It is to these socioeconomic differences that I turn to next.
Disaggregating E-Waste Work
Given that the vast majority of e-waste trade and processing in Guiyu is run as family firms, many locals benefitted directly from this lucrative business. Even more than in Baocun and Qiancun, however, benefits were unevenly spread and concentrated in the hands of powerful local families. In Guiyu, some who opened family-run e-waste processing businesses have become unimaginably wealthy. By most accounts, even the wealthiest and most successful families were poor a few decades previously. As in Qiancun, the first to start were most likely to make a fortune. Family connections and entrepreneurial networks—particularly with local government officials, but also with traders, brokers, and suppliers of material—were instrumental to their success. Such good connections and considerable accumulated capital ensured their ability to weather cycles of low trade and to evade crackdowns. For instance, to circumvent regulation, these families may be able to relocate the most polluting steps in e-waste processing to neighboring towns, without actually losing business.
The ability to send children abroad for university education was regarded as a sign of success. One workshop boss, for instance, had sent one son to the UK and another to the US. By far the most conspicuous sign of success, however, was embodied in the construction of five- or six-story homes, preferably on the family’s ancestral land, as is common in this region (see Chan, Madsen, and Unger 2009). Those people who could not afford them derided these lavish homes as “face projects” (mianzi gongcheng): an exercise (p.142) in making the family’s economic success visible. This in turn further cemented these families’ power, reputation, and connections. I was able to visit some of these homes during fieldwork. One of them was the property of the successful boss of a plastic processing workshop, whose daughter was Juanjuan’s former schoolmate. When the house was completed in 2007, it was surrounded by farmland, but now several other homes (albeit not as high) encroached upon it. As Juanjuan and I approached, the smell of burning plastic was overpowering. Her friend opened the solid metal door and invited us in. We entered a large (probably two hundred square meters) empty room, with high ceilings, probably conceived as a workshop or storage/trading space and parking space. As we climbed the wide staircase, I glanced across to a lonely treadmill placed at the center of the empty room on the second floor, then saw an equally empty third floor, until we finally reached the fourth floor, where the family lived. Over our head, two more floors lay empty. Wary of not drawing spurious parallels with medieval Europe, I still couldn’t stop thinking of San Gimignano’s towers in Tuscany, built by lords competing to show off their economic prowess. The living room was extravagantly furnished with a large lacquered and handcarved wooden couch and four armchairs worth a hundred thousand yuan. A wide, low table sat in the middle of the sofa set, topped by a fancy fine bone china tea set. A large jade sculpture of a sprouting cabbage (a homonym of facai, or becoming wealthy) decorated another nearby table. The TV—probably measuring more than one by two meters—was the largest I had seen until then (a few days later I saw an even bigger one, in the house of another plastic recycling family). Juanjuan’s friend estimated they spent millions of yuan on this house, but they now considered moving to avoid the ever enchroaching pollution.
Indeed, the ability to afford housing outside Guiyu was an additional sign of success. For many, this was a financial investment, given the growing cost of real estate. But it was also a way to escape pollution. A famous family of four brothers (one of whom was married to Juanjuan’s aunt), which was one of the first families to become involved in plastic recycling twenty years previously, serves as a good example. By 2012, they owned a large house in Guiyu where they spent time during the day, were renovating their ancestral home (Juanjuan’s father was employed as a worker) also in downtown Guiyu, spent the evenings in a home they purchased in a cleaner nearby town, and owned property in Shantou and Guangzhou. (p.143) Their family was unique according to Juanjuan: to maximize on their strong economic interest, the extended family (including grandparents and grandchildren) maintained joint ownership of their assets. Each brother (in their thirties and early forties) managed one of the family’s four major plastic recycling businesses. Except for one brother and his family who lived in Shenzhen, the rest of the extended family shared all their houses. They employed a maid (for 2,000 yuan a month) who cooked for them all at their main Guiyu home. The business managed by Juanjuan’s aunt (shredding plastic and doing injection molding) mostly relied on machines and employed only ten workers, but another of the family businesses—a plastic pearl factory—relied more heavily on manual work, employing more than one hundred workers. She spent most of her time in a small office carved out of a corner of the factory, keeping a watchful eye on the live-stream of CCTV cameras positioned around the factory. An example of interweaving family networks and work opportunities, one of her employees in 2012 was her eighteen-year-old nephew (her older sister’s son), whose own immediate family was less well off, and who, by the following year, had also begun to take part in the plastic trade.
While Juanjuan’s aunt’s family was wealthy, their affluence paled in comparison to families who owned circuit board “baking” and metal refining establishments. As I mentioned above, Lindi estimated that the equipment cost hundreds of thousands of yuan, but owners could earn their entire investment back in one or two months. The wealthiest of all, it seemed, were either close to local officials or were local officials themselves. Not all of their wealth was derived from e-waste—selling village land to developers and retaining part of the proceeds was a major source of revenue, as is well documented in other areas (Cai 2003; Guo 2001). One Party Secretary, for instance, was said to have bought ten mu (6,667 square meters) of land in Shenzhen for more than one billion yuan. Unsurprisingly, economic and political power frequently overlapped. Lindi and his brother Linge, who recycled PC boards, told me that sometimes those who run metal refining workshops will resort to their powerful connections among local officials, and even hand out bribes in the form of cash or expensive cigarettes, in order to secure their protection and avoid crackdowns. Some of these powerful bosses become the stuff of legend. They were regarded as fearless, physically strong, and socially and politically untouchable. The manager of a metal smelting plant was said to have fallen into an acid tank (p.144) (used to extract and refine metals) and to have emerged unharmed. One village Party Secretary, a man in his fifties, owned the largest copper plant in Guiyu, a large hotel, and a supermarket. Rumor had it that all his sons and daughters drove racing cars, and that, when his son married, the bride’s family paid hundreds of thousands of yuan and bought the groom a Ferrari, costing over a million yuan. The going rate for women to marry into these powerful families was generally hundreds of thousands of yuan. Lindi and Linge summarized their attitude toward these powerful, successful bosses as a mixture of “admiration, envy, and hate.” “Common villagers” like them dreamed of becoming one of these inordinately wealthy bosses. They aspired to emulate their power and connections, but at the same time they despised the corruption that earning such status would involve. Realistically, they knew all too well that they would never make it.
At the opposite extreme of the social and economic spectrum to these mighty bosses lies the vast migrant population, who, as in Baocun, undertook the most harmful jobs. Indeed, by providing cheap labor, they were instrumental to these bosses’ success. According to one small workshop manager I interviewed in June 2013, 98 percent of workers in dangerous conditions were migrants. For some, wages were not much higher than in less health-threatening occupations. In 2005, they were paid 2,000 yuan per month—a large sum for a young man from rural Sichuan, but not much more than my young friends from rural Langzhong (Sichuan) made in Shenzhen that same year. By 2012, some salaries had risen to 4,000 or 5,000 yuan, but varied widely depending on the job. For instance, older women (the least valued and lowest paid members of the migrant workforce) made 3,000 yuan a month dividing plastic (which is regarded as light work). For migrants, these opportunities were appealing because they had limited options: “The main thing is here they don’t require education, only strength; they are happy to employ middle-aged workers [unlike factories]. To work in a big factory you need education, and I’m old, and I don’t have an ID, so I don’t meet their requirements” (middle-aged man, June 2013).
Locals without the means to establish their own businesses, but with good enough connections to find work, sat one step up on the proverbial ladder. They were more likely to be employed in lighter, less dangerous tasks, such as operating plastic cutting machines and raking plastic pellets. They might earn 3,000 to 4,000 yuan per month for this work, but unlike (p.145) migrants, they did not have to face the costs of rental accommodation. These salaries were not dissimilar to those offered by other local manufacturing businesses. Men who could not (or were unwilling to) gain employment in e-waste work were employed on the countless huge construction sites fueled by burgeoning real estate development. Much real estate investment itself, as I explained above, was a side effect of e-waste work: successful workshop managers bought land to expand their workshops and build new homes in more salubrious environments. Textile manufacturing, textile dyeing, and underwear manufacturing were alternative, popular options, especially among women. Computerized embroidery was also on the rise. These jobs tended to be regarded as more strenuous than e-waste work, however. They demanded longer working hours and offered less flexibility. For instance, Binbin, one of Juanjuan’s former schoolmates, worked in a local workshop selecting microchips. She was paid a meager 1,000 yuan per month, but preferred this work to being a seamstress. (Just to underscore the inequalities inherent in e-waste work: while I talked to Binbin, the workshop owner sold a small bag full of microchips, probably weighing less than two kilos, for 10,000 yuan).
A further step up the ladder was the hugely diverse socioeconomic group comprising traders, owners, and managers of small, family-run processing workshops. During slow periods, those who ran their own e-waste businesses might not make much more than the workers (only a few thousand yuan). However, when business was thriving, they might earn as much as one hundred thousand yuan a month. Income, of course, also varied vastly depending on the nature of trade and processing, with metal refining and circuit board baking occupying the top of the ladder. Since describing adequately the huge variety of processing workshops is beyond the scope of this chapter (or indeed an entire book), I will limit my account to two cases. First I will turn to Juanjuan’s family.
In 2012, Juanjuan’s family was composed of nine people: Juanjuan; her twenty-year-old brother; her twenty-three-year-old sister; her twenty-five-year-old brother, his wife, and their newborn twins; Juanjuan’s parents; and her paternal grandmother. Their home was located in a small village just outside Guiyu town, and was still surrounded by paddy fields, although Juanjuan explained that there used to be much more farmland before the village expanded. Her house was a beautifully decorated traditional courtyard home typical of the Chaoshan area (see figure 5.8). Opposite the main (p.146)
entrance were the kitchen, toilet, and shower room, and just to the right of the entrance was a small dining room. A second entrance led into the open courtyard, which in turn led directly to the main living space, including the ancestral altar. This room was furnished with a polished wooden sofa and chairs, a low table, and a large flat-screen TV. Hanging on the walls were some watercolors of peonies and a large digital clock with a moving image of a waterfall surrounded by verdant hills. On the main wall facing the entrance to the room was a long, wooden cabinet that occupied the entire low part of the wall. On top of it was a wall-to-wall decorated mirror and above it a row of small frescoes. Bedrooms, as well as the traditional family hearth (not in use, but beautifully kept) were arranged along two sides of this room. The house had been redecorated twice: first when Juanjuan’s parents were married, and again two years previously, for her eldest brother’s wedding. In her village, these “traditional” homes were still in the majority, but they were fast being replaced by highrise blocks built to exude financial achievements.
(p.147) Several members of Juanjuan’s extended family were involved in e-waste trade and processing—her aunt had married into a successful plastic processing family, her cousin was a plastic trader, and his fourteen-year-old sister stripped earphones on weekends for forty-seven yuan a day. Her immediate family’s engagement with e-waste work was uneven, however. Her father, Uncle Tao, had been until recently the main earner, and his employment had been patchy at best. In part, this was due to severe illness in the family: his youngest son was diagnosed with a brain tumor as a child and had undergone several rounds of very expensive treatment that had swallowed up much of the family’s resources. This pushed Uncle Tao to experiment with several types of work, in order to cover his son’s healthcare costs. Attached to one side of their courtyard house was an annex built with bare air bricks, probably measuring around one hundred square meters. When it was first constructed in the early 2000s, it hosted a small underwear factory set up by Uncle Tao, but this business did not turn out to be lucrative. Inspired by developments in nearby Guiyu, Uncle Tao was one of the first in his village to start a plastic recycling business, but this too was short-lived. For several years, he worked in a local quarry co-run by a relative, but he lost his job in 2009, just when his younger son was undergoing the latest course of treatment in Beijing. He recalled finishing all their savings and borrowing considerable amounts, especially from his sister who had married into a successful plastic processing family. In the intervening years, Uncle Tao continued to find short-term employment: in 2012 he worked as a builder for his sister’s family; and in 2013 he found employment in another quarry, which required him to live away from home during the week.
Inspired by his father’s efforts with e-waste work and by its growing prominence, Juanjuan’s eldest brother had made several attempts at establishing successful businesses. As seems common, he had swung between processing and trading, employing the connections, skills, and knowledge gained in one business to help with the other. He started out by trading plastic, and for this reason he had rented the workshop in downtown Guiyu where I stayed with Juanjuan in 2013. He had lived there with his wife, but they moved back to the village in early 2012 after she became pregnant. As trading went through a slow period, Juanjuan’s brother turned to plastic processing—one of the sectors of e-waste work least affected by the economic downturn and the cycles of regulatory crackdowns. Together with (p.148) his cousin (who had worked in his aunt’s plastic processing factory) they purchased a plastic press, which was stored in the small warehouse attached to Juanjuan’s home. Juanjuan’s younger brother also worked for his older brother when he started to do plastic cutting. Having been a trader, her older brother had the necessary contacts to secure material for his plastic press. He also had contacts that would assist in selling his products. This business too, however, had come to a temporary standstill. They had not yet sold any of their products, and Juanjuan’s older brother had set up yet another business doing computerized embroidery, this time with his wife’s relatives.
Juanjuan’s family’s involvement with e-waste work displays some of the patterns of collaboration and support that are common in Guiyu. Relatives may pool resources to establish new businesses; a son may pick up business where his father left off; relatives may be employed when business is going well and left idle when it is not. More successful relatives may help out. Their case also illustrates that those like Juanjuan’s older brother may shift between different types of e-waste work, drawing on their existing networks and knowledge, and experiment with different lines of work, especially when the current business is failing to bring in significant returns. Finally, it shows that illness can be a major drain on resources (see Lora-Wainwright, 2013a). In these cases, success in e-waste work among one’s extended family may come to the rescue. This surely gives a very different connotation to e-waste work—not so much as a threat to health but as the means to protect it.
Capacitor recycling occupies a prominent place as a fairly financially secure and relatively clean business. It was particularly common in a town bordering Guiyu, where there were more than a hundred capacitor recycling workshops. Guo and his wife Peng—a couple in their mid-twenties with two young children—ran a successful family workshop for about six years in downtown Guiyu. They lived on the third floor of a five-story home and rented two floors in the building opposite, where the workshop was situated. Guo stopped attending school at seventeen and worked in Shenzhen for two years, gradually learning some basics of e-waste work. Peng worked in textile manufacturing before marrying, and now helped her husband to oversee workers. Guo first set up the capacitor recycling workshop with a friend, but by 2012 he ran it with his wife, taking the responsibility for trading goods. Six CCTV cameras were installed in the (p.149) workshop and connected to the TV screen in their home, from which Peng could keep an eye on workers remotely. When business was good, they employed twenty workers, but in 2012 they only had ten. All workers were young, most under twenty, and some were migrants from Guangxi.
Guo regarded his work as not very lucrative, but also relatively light (qingsong). He explained the rationale for recycling in financial terms: a new capacitor costs a few yuan, but an old one is only one yuan, and the quality is still very good. To underscore this point, he stressed that all the goods he recycled were imported (particularly from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan), and therefore better quality than domestic-made capacitors. The price depended on their serial number (linked among other things to their age) and size (not their country of origin), and ranged from one yuan to around ten. He emphasized that he did not make much profit: if he bought a capacitor for one yuan, he might sell it for 1.1. The real profit, he argued, was made by the buyers. His main customers were TV and PC factories in Shenzhen. When he traded within Guangdong (Shenzhen, Foshan, Dongguan) he went there personally, but he also traded with other parts of China, such as Shanghai, Zhengzhou, Xiamen, Tianjin, and Shandong province.
Most capacitors he recycled were originally part of TVs and PCs. TVs and PCs reached the Guiyu area after passing through Nanhai (Foshan city, Guangdong). Limited processing activities went on in Nanhai itself, due to strict controls. These items were dismantled in workshops in Guiyu or in a nearby town, and Guo bought capacitors directly from them. At a first glance, Guo’s workshop seemed messy and rudimentary, with boxes piled everywhere, but it ran as an efficient and well-oiled production chain (see figure 5.9). Capacitors made their way through several hands in Guo’s workshop—with each of the workers specializing in a particular part of the process. Upon arriving, capacitors were stripped of their plastic covers and brushed clean. A second employee tested them to establish if they still worked. Faulty ones were discarded and sold by weight to other workshops, which smelted them to extract aluminum. Working capacitors were heated to remove residual parts originally attached to motherboards. They were then positioned vertically on large charging shelves and recharged (see figure 5.10). The next step was wrapping them in their new plastic cover. When we visited in 2012, the cover of choice was a counterfeited Japanese brand. (As I watched over the process I wondered a number of things: If some of these capacitors were originally made by that Japanese company, (p.150)
(p.151) did this process still count as counterfeiting? Where are these goods produced? Here? At their original production site? In both locations?) In order to seal the plastic cover, the capacitors were placed on small trays that were put in what looked like a microwave for a few seconds, and then fanned with a blow dryer (see figure 5.11). Finally, capacitors were tested and placed neatly in cardboard boxes ready to be sold all over China.
Guo and Peng were adamant that their work caused practically no harm to the environment or to health. In large part, they were right—with the exception of the two young men who melted metal residues at the tip of the capacitors, in a poorly ventilated room and with no masks, and the two
(p.152) young women who baked and dried the new plastic covers in a windowless room. But when one thinks of life in some parts of Guiyu, with black and smelly streams, acids and heavy metals leeched into the soil, and the overpowering smell of plastic, the effects of Guo and Peng’s workshop did rank rather low. In conclusion, I turn to examine how locals evaluated the effects of pollution, how it has become normalized, and how resignation intersects with efforts to deny blame.
Between Concern and Denial: Normalization, Hierarchies of Harm, and Redefining ‘Health’
The presence of pollution in Guiyu was a relatively uncontested and uncontestable fact. Most of those interviewed—ranging from migrant workers to wealthy local bosses and locals working in unrelated businesses—highlighted its existence. Much of their evidence was put in sensory terms: “the air smells very badly,” “the water stinks,” “the air is yellow,” “the water is black,” and so forth. A few interlocutors downplayed the severity of pollution, and argued that media reports exaggerated its impact by treating specific, extreme cases as if they represented the entire town. Some were also keen to emphasize that since stricter controls were put in place in 2012 air pollution had decreased. Yet, overall, pollution had become accepted as a fact of life; it was only a matter of degree.
Responses became much more varied when I raised questions about pollution’s effects on health. Several health conditions were regarded to be prevalent locally and considered to be linked to pollution. Nose infections, coughs, respiratory tract problems, and darkened teeth were mentioned most frequently, followed by vulnerability to flu, headaches, poor hearing, skin problems, lung problems, and liver damage (including cancer). However, responses ranged widely from confidence in the harm of pollution to denial of any demonstrable link between pollution and disease. Such differences may in part be correlated with socioeconomic differences, but not in any simplistic way. Conversely, in cases where a migrant and the manager of a successful workshop voiced the same response, its implications and connotations would be predictably different.
Migrants rarely expressed confidence about the harm of pollution, but rather they were either unsure or openly skeptical about it. They cited the presence of locals in their eighties and nineties as evidence that pollution (p.153) did not pose a significant threat. One person disputed the prevalence of illness: “I heard about children being diagnosed with illnesses, but I don’t know if it’s true. … I also heard that the soil and rice are polluted, but everyone is in good health.” Another migrant accepted that there were sick people, but he questioned whether this could be attributed to pollution by arguing that there was no proof of a link and that people suffered from the same illnesses even in areas where the air was clean. Such skepticism was not only confined to migrants. Indeed, a local e-waste worker and a migrant strikingly used the same expression in two separate interviews: “If everyone was sick, who would still dare to stay here?” Like migrants, locals who denied the health effects of pollution resorted to a range of examples as evidence. They referred to the presence of many villagers who lived to a ripe old age and argued that illness may be linked to genes and lifestyle. One stated: “Everyone’s body is different. You can’t say it’s all due to the air [pollution]. Some people are just unhealthy anyway.” Skepticism and the emphasis on the uncertainty surrounding causes of illness served as a sort of self-defense mechanism, enabling the residents to reassure themselves that living and working in Guiyu was not causing any lasting damage.
A crucial strategy to downplay pollution’s effects on health involved putting their correlation itself under scrutiny. A local manager reflected: “The air is bad, many have nose infections, unhealthy lungs. But it’s hard to say [if it is connected to pollution]. Some have nose infections, some don’t. … Those who burn circuit boards may harm their liver, but it is hard to gather evidence of whether the liver function is poor. These illnesses exist everywhere.” This short statement questions the effects of pollution in three ways. First, the intimation that not all in Guiyu suffer from nose infections implies that air pollution may not be the cause. As the reasoning goes, if air pollution caused nose infections, then everyone should be affected. If some people were not, then something else must be to blame. Second, and conversely, he suggested that these illnesses exist in areas not affected by pollution, and therefore pollution cannot be the sole culprit. Third, he added that, at any rate, evidence is hard to find. His points are, of course, scientifically accurate. Epidemiologists would not conclude that the co-presence of pollution and illness proves that individual illness episodes must be due to pollution. Indeed, epidemiological studies never focus on single cause-effect relationships, but on correlations that involve a wider range of factors. There can be little indisputable proof, on an individual (p.154) level, that a single factor (pollution) caused a particular health effect (nose infections or liver damage). But this manager’s insistence on the uncertain link between pollution and illness is significant not so much for its scientific accuracy as for its social, political, and economic contexts and implications. It is a sign of how intimately embedded pollution is in the lives of Guiyu’s people and a powerful strategy that enables them to question the effects of that pollution.
As testament to the normalization of pollution in Guiyu, locals often swerved around the question of impact. Two research participants responded in remarkably similar ways to questions about the effects of pollution on health: “Why would you worry about that? Do you have nothing else to do?” Another replied: “Who is so wealthy that they can worry about that?” It is important to note that these statements do not deny that pollution may indeed cause illness, but rather they voice a refusal to actively consider these effects, resembling Guo Lin’s comment in Baocun that “it is best not to think about things you cannot change” (see p. 86). For those who could not escape pollution, denying its effects served to minimize the emotional and psychological strain caused by accepting that the environment may be harming not only them but also their families.
Virtually every family has at least one member who is involved in e-waste work. The resulting normalization of pollution may be encapsulated by the frequent remark: “Everyone here does this [e-waste work].” One local poignantly added: “Opposing pollution is just like opposing yourself” (fandui wuran jiushi fandui ziji). Another explained that: “Nobody complains. Everyone wants to have a good life for themselves. They don’t want to provoke others.” Locals explained that, typically, those who operated workshops would take care not to impact too much on neighbors. Indeed, while the increase of emissions at night is often seen as an effort to avoid crackdowns, some locals also regarded it as a way to decrease the effect on neighbors: at night, people are more likely to be indoors, with their windows closed, and to thus be less affected by air pollution. As one local put it: “If you can endure, you endure. As long as it’s not too excessive [guofen] it’s fine. Everyone hopes they can have friendly relationships. We take these relationships very seriously.” The high value placed on social relations therefore superseded concerns about the potential harm caused by pollution. Tolerance toward pollution caused by other locals is nothing surprising and has been documented elsewhere in China (see chapter 2). In extreme cases, Uncle (p.155) Tao told me, villagers may call 110 (China’s equivalent of the US 911). But the fact they would only do this in “extreme cases”—when the air is so smelly it becomes hard to breathe—is telling of quite how low their expectations about a healthy environment have become.
Resignation to pollution as part of the status quo did not always result in skepticism about its effects. Some locals and migrants were quite confident about its harm. They tended to be younger and better educated, but not exclusively. Asked whether pollution had any impact locally, one young migrant from Guizhou, who had worked in a plastic processing workshop in Guiyu for six years, argued: “Of course it has a very big impact. It is because pollution here is too severe that many have nose infections and lung diseases. … Processing circuit boards is quite poisonous, the skin is quite sensitive to it” (my emphasis). In his account, a causal relationship between pollution and health effects was stated openly. A local university student specializing in medicine elaborated further: “If you researched it, you would find many have respiratory system problems. Taking apart circuit boards is very harmful to health. Locals rarely do it; they mostly employ migrants to do it.” This student presented the fact that locals refused to take on these jobs as evidence of their harm. A university graduate (in international marketing) in his forties, who had recently returned from Beijing, was confident that pollution was very harmful and cited research reports he had read to support his argument. He also cited the inability of men to pass the army entrance test in recent years as evidence that locals’ health was severely affected. Finally, capacitor recycler Peng cited her personal experience with her son as proof of the adverse effects of pollution: “Look at my child! He is often unwell. When I take him to hospital there is a long queue of children with a sore throat and a fever.”
Tellingly, all those who stressed a link between pollution and illness—capacitor recyclers Guo and Peng, CD drives recycler Lindi, the young migrant from Guizhou, and university graduates and students—were also keen to emphasize that their line of work was not responsible for pollution. For the most part, this was empirically true. But it was also a powerful discursive strategy through which these locals were acknowledging the severe and yet normalized presence of pollution while at the same time emancipating themselves from direct blame. Accordingly, they critiqued local corruption that allowed some to benefit unimaginably from polluting work, and they advocated for stricter regulation of the most polluting activities, (p.156) but defended their own work as relatively harmless and even “environmentally friendly.”
These efforts by locals to discriminate between different types of e-waste work and to carefully position themselves on a moral footing show that e-waste work may not be treated as a monolithic whole. Its huge diversity enables some to refer to hierarchies of relative harm to highlight their limited culpability. This significantly complicates any simple narratives of victims versus perpetrators. At the same time, the long evolution and local embedding of e-waste work in Guiyu has produced a pervasive sense of resignation to pollution’s presence. This fuels uncertainty over the environmental health harm of e-waste work and supports processes of embodied attunement to pollution. Unlike in Qiancun and Baocun, the acute awareness of the interdependence of each aspect of e-waste work and trade on the entire system keeps local residents from complaining. The vast disparities in economic gains across e-waste workers further undermines the formation of a collective sense of shared environmental health harm. Those who can afford to do so protect themselves from harm by moving elsewhere, by sending their children to study in other towns, or by at least buying bottled water or filtration systems. Those who cannot move endeavor to at least protect themselves discursively: they lower their expectations for a healthy environment and they uphold the internal diversities inherent to e-waste work in order to avoid responsibility for pollution and to emphasize their relative distance from its worst manifestations. Resigned activism in Guiyu hangs in this delicate, uneven, and shifting balance between praising the recent economic boom and despising the unequal distribution of gains and harm; between resignation to pollution and resentment toward it; and between the denial of pollution’s harm and the denial of blame.
(1.) Due to the highly sensitive nature of this fieldsite, my Chinese collaborator, Professor Li Liping, initially stipulated that a pseudonym should be employed. As a consequence, in previous publications I referred to the site as Treasure Town (Kirby and Lora-Wainwright 2015b; Lora-Wainwright 2016). It became clear, however, that the town was easily identifiable given its peculiar position, and we have therefore opted to use its real name. To protect the anonymity of interviewees, all their names have been changed, as is common practice. For more details on the methodology employed and access issues, in particular Professor Li’s incredible and creative support, refer to the appendix.
(4.) For instance, based on local interviews, Minter (2013) highlighted that the majority of the profits in Guiyu are drawn from reuse rather than from recovery of materials. In different ways, Gabrys (2011), Lepawsky (2015b), and Lepawsky and Mather (2011) have highlighted that the entire process whereby appliances are discarded and recycled is much more complex than the snapshot view we might glean from only looking at end-of-life stages (where components no longer work) or from focusing only on a subset of processes in places like Guiyu.
(5.) Lepawsky, Goldstein, and Schulz (2015) have shown that estimates reproduced in reports by UNEP and Greenpeace (Baldé et al. 2015; Brigden et al. 2005; Rucevska (p.196) et al. 2015; Wang et al. 2013) are often self-referential and based on weak evidence and that press releases tend to highlight the worst case scenarios.
(6.) Lepawsky (2015a, 2015b) demonstrated the recent rise of a “post-Basel world,” where much of the e-waste trade takes places within the developing world rather than from developed to developing nations. For some efforts to rethink e-waste flows see Kirby and Lora-Wainwright (2015a).
(7.) Elsewhere I have shown that e-waste workers stress the important and sustainable contribution of the informal sector and are skeptical of formalization (Lora-Wainwright 2016). The Chinese government’s condemnation of informal recycling intentionally ignores that it leads to a higher rate of recovery of reusable materials (Lepawsky, Goldstein, and Schulz 2015; Minter 2013). This point is also ignored by the latest UNEP report (Rucevska et al. 2015), which focuses instead on the most dangerous and harmful subsections of informal recycling (material recovery) in order to support formalization and technologization as a solution. The feasibility of such plans should also be under scrutiny. While the UNEP report claims that informal recycling has been phased out in areas where it formerly thrived, journalistic investigations show that it simply pushed informal recycling into rural areas (Lepawsky, Goldstein, and Schulz 2015). This mirrors my findings in Guiyu that banned activities are still carried out, but further from the spotlight.
(8.) Since my last visit in 2013, some progress was made with the circular economy park. My doctoral student, Carlo Inverardi Ferri, reported that during his visit to Guiyu in 2014 the park was under construction and that some workshops had begun to move in. The television manufacturer TCL also seemed to be a major feature of the park, processing old cathode ray tube televisions.