Over the weekend I plugged the 60 Minutes segment on e-scrap processing in Guiyu with a promise to comment on it. So, without further ado, and despite a surfeit of scrap-related blogging over the last two weeks, here goes.
In 2002, the Basel Action Network, a US-based activist group concerned with the export of high-tech waste to the developing world, released “The High Tech Trashing of Asia,” a ground-breaking video documenting Guiyu, a small town in Guangdong Province, where electronic waste is processed using some of the most primitive and dangerous methods known. It was ground-breaking work, and though its sourcing was occasionally suspect, and its conclusions were occasionally exaggerated, it brought Guiyu to an international audience and – for that reason alone – it must be considered one of the most important environmental documents of the decade. No question.
Sunday’s Sixty Minutes segment, “The Electronic Wasteland” didn’t diverge much from the narrative that BAN’s film wrote in 2002, but for one notable exception. Earlier this year, the US government conducted a sting on US-based businesses that claim to recycle e-scrap in an environmentally-sound manner instead of exporting it abroad (China isn’t the only place where Guiyu-style processing occurs). Somehow, the folks at Sixty Minutes obtained the name of one the “stung” US businesses, and conducted its own investigation, following a container load of computer monitors from Colorado to Hong Kong (more on that in a moment).
From there, the segment shifts to Guiyu, where the Sixty Minutes crew, accompanied by BAN’s Jim Puckett, are turned away at the Guiyu e-scrap processing zone, shuttled back to the mayor’s office, and then shown an e-scrap dismantling workshop closer to town. Later, the crew sneaks into the e-scrap processing zone and is confronted by – and then chased out – by the town’s mafia/security services. Point made.
Ostensibly, the point of the Sixty Minutes segment, coming six years after BAN’s film, and dozens if not hundreds of articles about Guiyu in most of the world’s major newspapers, was to show that American e-waste is still being delivered to the “electronic wasteland” despite the promises of recyclers – one, in particular – who promise otherwise.
But there are other, laudable ambitions connected to this project as well. BAN’s Jim Puckett, who made his first visit to China in half-a-decade, in order to accompany CBS, suggests that the crew was attacked by Guiyu’s thugs/security forces because:
They’re afraid of being found out. This is smuggling. This is illegal. A lot of people are turning a blind eye here. And if somebody makes enough noise, they’re afraid this is all gonna dry up.
Just for a moment, let’s put this in perspective. A google search for Guiyu and e-waste turns up 21,300 results (as of two minutes ago), including articles from major international media and a very high-ranked result from the state-owned China Daily. Google results aside, in the last five years I have personally attended Chinese government sponsored conferences where government researchers openly discuss Guiyu. I have also met with influential government researchers who can speak about Guiyu and its problems authoritatively. So to suggest, at this late date, that there’s somebody in Guiyu afraid of being “found out” borders on the absurd. Anyone in a position to shut down Guiyu already knows about it, and hasn’t.
So then we’re left to ask: why not?
The answer to this question is embedded in the one important question that Sixty Minutes didn’t bother to ask. Namely: does all of the waste in Guiyu come from the US and the developed world? Or, is it just possible, that China, too, is contributing to the problem?
I’ve written about the growing tide of Chinese-generated e-waste before, and interested readers can search this blog for posts on the subject (notably, here and here). For now, I’ll just cite the aforementioned China Daily article that mentioned Guiyu, and its sourced estimate that – in 2007 – China was generating an annual average of 150 million pieces of e-waste on its own. And I can assure you, dear reader, that significant quantities of this domestically-generated waste is flowing to Guiyu in the continued absence of better, cleaner, greener forms of e-waste processing facilities in China (a problem that doesn’t seem to concern BAN or Sixty Minutes, for whatever reason).
Why should this matter? I’ll offer two reasons.
First, the Sixty Minutes report, and much of the press coverage of Guiyu which preceded it, suggests – either implicity or overtly – that cutting-off the flow e-waste from the United States, to China, will spell the end of Guiyu (“… if somebody makes enough noise, they’re afraid this is all gonna dry up.”). That’s false: the only way that Guiyu will close is when high levels of the Chinese government determine that it no longer suits China’s purposes (a time which is drawing closer).
Second, and more important, the incessant and incorrect depiction of Guiyu as a foreign dumping site provides rhetorical and political cover for Chinese government officials unwilling to take responsibility for the environmental degradation being caused with their tacit – and sometimes, overt – support. Put differently, what Communist Party official wouldn’t prefer to see Guiyu blamed on foreign smugglers rather than themselves?
Four quick, final points on stunts and ignorance masquerading as public interest reporting:
1. After the CBS crew makes an involuntary visit to Guiyu’s mayor, CBS’s Scott Pelley explains: “The mayor told us that we would be welcome to see the rest of the town, but that the town wouldn’t be prepared for our visit for another year.” I’m no defender of Guiyu’s mayor, but there was more to this statement than mere rhetoric. At the end of August, the State Council approved a long-awaited e-waste regulation that will – supposedly – subsidize environmentally-responsible e-waste recycling in China. At the moment, Guiyu is slated to be the beneficiary of several of those projects. It wouldn’t have been hard for CBS to learn this, and they should have mentioned it. As is, even Greenpeace acknowledges that the overall situation has started to improve (in April, a Greenpeace official acknowledged this in a presentation to the Shanghai branch of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China).
2. The mayor personally accompanies the CBS crew to a “tidy” e-waste shop that Pelley later compares to the “real” e-waste processing facility in Guiyu. In fact, both are “real,” with the mayor’s preferred shop being the front-end dismantling operation. Materials that can’t be reovered there are sent for further processing in Guiyu. Mistakes like this are made when reporters rely upon activists, and not people actually familiar with the actual business of e-scrap.
3. We never learn the intended destination of the container of scrap television tubes shipped from Colorado to Hong Kong, and seized there. For various reasons, Hong Kong is a major transloading site for e-wastes. But until the containers are transloaded, there’s no way to know if they’re going to Guiyu, or, increasingly Karachi, Pakistan (where green activists fear to tread) and Malaysia (where several plants process them in relative safety). It’s no credit to CBS that this point is never followed-up. Instead, viewers are left to infer that the tubes would have been transported to Guiyu. But inference, and fact, are two different things – something that a Sixty Minutes producer surely should have known.
4. At the moment when Guiyu’s thugs arrive to rough them up, the CBS crew is in the process of taking a soil sample. In the process, the soil sample is seized. I’ll be blunt: CBS and BAN needed a soil sample about as much as they needed a gravity sample. Guiyu is contaminated, and the contamination has been well-characterized, both by foreign and Chinese scientists. There isn’t any science left to do there, and watching the crew act indignant about their seized sample suggests that this segment was more stunt than journalism.
After all of this, it might appear that I’m not sympathetic to BAN, or CBS’s report. That’s not quite right. But, unlike CBS and BAN, I believe it’s important to acknowledge that the situation in Guiyu has changed in the last six years. Equally important, it’s critical to acknowledge that the most important Chinese e-waste regulations of the last fifteen years have just been issued, and they will have a far more profound impact upon Guiyu, and China’s other Guiyus, than the combined might of foreign activists and entertainment reporters masquerading as journalists.