Chinese recycling base in pursuit of sustainable development
Neatly dressed, Xu Li, 35, adroitly disassembles chips, capacitors, and cathode-ray tubes from a power panel against a heater inside her home workshop and puts them away in a couple of cups in front of her.
Xu's young son stands by munching on an apple.
"The air has become cleaner and healthier since I started using a heater instead of an open furnace to remove the gadgets from the panel," Xu said.
Xu is just one of 60,000 recycling workers in Guiyu Township, which falls under the jurisdiction of coastal Shantou Prefecture, in south China's Guangdong Province. Over 100 truckloads of discarded electric or electronic appliances are transported to this township, with an area of 52 sq km, each day, according to Zheng Songming, head of Guiyu Township Government.
Previously, the workers recycled all valuable metals showing no concern for the environment. They burned electric wires and cables, soaked circuit panels in water containing sulfuric acid before disassembling them, then burned all those useless trash or dumped them along the riverbank.
"It was nightmarish: the air was so polluted that it was difficult for me to breathe at work," recalled Xu, "I was worried that my son might fall ill someday because of the pollution."
The price paid by Guiyu for the reckless expansion of its recycled economy proved to be too high. In addition to pungent air, the water of the local rivers and the soil were also polluted. Local residents had to rely on bottled water trucked in from outside the township as the Neixi, one of the local rivers in Guiyu, became excessively polluted.
The Medical Sciences College of Shantou University concluded after health checkups of transient workers that 88 percent of them suffered from skin diseases or developed neurological, respiratory or digestive ailments.
More and more residents of Guiyu, who were described as "ghosts among machine trash heaps", moved out of the region and resettled elsewhere.
But encouraging signs of change have started to occur in Guiyu in the last few years as the Chinese Government has trumped up efforts to improve awareness of protecting the environment and conserving nature in the process of regional economic development.
Improved supervision over the closing-loop materials economy has also played a part.
Zheng Songming, head of Guiyu Township government, said they have published decrees banning disassembling electric appliances by burning in open fires or soaking them in sulfuric acid. A supervision group has also been set up to carry out spot checks and violations have been dealt with through fines.
A total of over 800 coal-burning furnaces for the purpose of disassembling electric appliances have been destroyed in the campaign, said Zheng, who said the government has enhanced management for local industrial development.
"Business people will be given preferential treatment in aspects of land acquisition, water and power supplies if they invest in large environment-friendly recycling businesses," said the township official.
Ma Qiang, owner of an electric wire disassembling plant, said since burning on open fire was banned, they have to do the disassembling via physical means, including peeling with hands.
"It seems that peeling is more costly than burning as it takes longer and more workers are needed in order to finish tasks in time, but the rate of recycling of the discarded appliances now is 100 percent," said Ma. "We in turn earn more because we only keep copper wires, resell the plastic coatings to nearby factories for reprocessing into plastic granules + raw materials for toy production."
There is also a division of labor among different villages in Guiyu, where there are now 200 industrial enterprises which are engaged in collecting, disassembling of discarded electric appliances, and new rounds of processing, and marketing.
For instance, there are now five villages which are specialized in disassembling electric appliances, six villages specialized in disassembling electronic and circuit panels, while seven other villages are engaged in processing plastic products and hardware.
Guiyu has been awarded by its efforts to follow an environment- friendly path in developing the local economy in many ways. Environmental departments report that the quality of the air in Guiyu has returned to Level II, a median state standard for human habitation.
"The quality of life has been improving for us," said Zheng Songming, the head of Guiyu Township Government, "We have built a water diversion project via which water is brought from a local reservoir to rural households of several villages. And people who used to migrate elsewhere because of the worsening environment in the past are returning, too."
But most encouraging of all seems to be a decision of the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry (MII). MII said it was determined to turn the south Chinese township into a national showcase center for recycling discarded electronic and information technology products.
In accordance with a plan concerning construction of the national demonstration center, Guiyu will be built into a specialized market at a cost of 2 billion yuan (about 241 million US dollars), where sewage treatment plants are properly distributed, apart from factories for processing precious metals.