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Digital Waste Worth More Than Gold, Copper Ore 302

tcd004 writes "Imagine sheer mountains of discarded Pentium IIIs, tractor trailers overflowing with discarded wall warts. Photojournalist Natalie Behring visited Guiyu, China and documented the world's biggest digital dump where, for $2 per day, the locals sort, disassemble, and pulverize hundreds of tons of e-waste. The payoff is huge: computer waste contains 17 times more gold than gold ore, 40 times more copper than copper ore. But the detritus also leaches chemicals and metals into local water supplies."
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Digital Waste Worth More Than Gold, Copper Ore

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  • Good for them (Score:4, Insightful)

    by unkaggregate ( 855265 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @02:47AM (#19205519) Homepage
    Finding a good use for old parts. They're better than most people I know who throw away a whole computer just because the latest software won't run on it. And if they can alleviate any toxic seepage into the soils doing so even better.

    It's kind of sad though that environmental laws here, even though they mean well, ultimately make it too costly for us to recycle PCs here compared to China.
  • by BooleanLobster ( 1077727 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @02:58AM (#19205577) Homepage
    As far as I know, the value of the metals inside electronic waste is only a couple dollars per ton of waste. Some electronic waste recycling companies have found that it is much more profitable to resell things that still work (at roughly 90% discounts), and extract the working components from things that don't.
  • by 2Bits ( 167227 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @03:08AM (#19205625)
    This is a sad situation where rich countries just dump their toxic wastes to the poor countries. It's a quick solution, and does not cause much (if any?) local political discussion. Out of sight, out of mind.

    Unfortunately, this is a very irresponsible way to dispose off the toxic waste. Sure, the rich can claim that it is actually beneficial to the local economy in the poor countries. As the article mentioned, some dump site employs as many as 100,000 people. And sure, it's a global economy, meaning that anything can be "exported".

    But, have we ever considered the consequences to the planet as a whole? After all, this planet belongs to everyone, and we should take up the responsibility to protect it better. The rich countries have the proper means and resources to handle the wastes better than the poor countries. But instead, we all chose the easy way out: we just let the poor poison the planet. It's currently poisoning China's, India's and Nigeria's backyard, so that America, Europe, Japan etc, can have their own little clean and green lawn.

    Guess what happens when they run out of dumping ground? I visited a site a couple of years ago. I happened to ask what they would do in this case. The foreman said:"Easy, there are plenty of fishermen out of job, as the fish stock is running out. They would be happy to help us dump into the ocean." Ha, same attitude as to how the rich get rid off their wastes.

    Good to know that we are all alike, rich or poor. Eventually, it will come to bite us all back from behind. Happy dumping, everyone.

  • Re:Good for them (Score:5, Insightful)

    by demon driver ( 1046738 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @03:13AM (#19205661) Journal
    It's not so much environmental laws, it's the low wages which generate manual jobs in countries like China, where, by the way, unemployment is an even greater problem than in the western world, and so is the pressure on people to get any jobs there are, even if it's going to ruin their health and shorten their lives drastically.

    And regarding both environmental and social standards it would be rather short-sighted to further lower our western standards only to be more competitive to countries which are even more exploitative towards both environment and populace. Instead, efforts should go in the direction of installing world-wide minimum standards in both regards...

  • Stupidity (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Eivind ( 15695 ) <> on Monday May 21, 2007 @03:57AM (#19205861) Homepage
    This article makes no sense whatsoever.

    Even if it is true that computer-trash contains 17 times the gold, compared to gold-ore, it does not follow that it is "worth more", that would be true only if getting the raw-material, handling it and extracting the valuable metals cost precisely the same. Which ain't likely.

    You also don't find all that many million-ton piles of computer-scrap just sitting around.

  • Re:Good for them (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ajs318 ( 655362 ) <sd_resp2.earthshod@co@uk> on Monday May 21, 2007 @04:13AM (#19205915)

    Instead, efforts should go in the direction of installing world-wide minimum standards in both regards...
    How about a law demanding that goods may not be imported, if they were manufactured under conditions that would not be acceptable in the destination country?
  • Re:This is amusing (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gigne ( 990887 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @04:45AM (#19206053) Homepage Journal
    They actually pay to buy our scrap. They own it. It is up to them if they want to harvest it for the goodies. We have no right to complain here.
  • by nanosquid ( 1074949 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @04:53AM (#19206089)
    I suspect that gold mining itself does a lot more damage than this kind of recycling. And what are the alternatives? Dump it into a dump and not recycle it? That will leach even more toxic metals into the ground. Or stop producing electronics altogether?

    I think it's good that this stuff is being recycled at all. We should now focus on:

    -- reducing the amount of heavy metals we put into electronics

    -- improving the safety and working conditions of the people doing the recycling

    -- redesigning electronics to reduce overall waste and make parts easier to recycle

    -- making sure that more electronics reach those countries in working order (open hardware standards and increasing compatibility can help with that)
  • Re:Good for them (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mobby_6kl ( 668092 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @05:00AM (#19206121)
    > How about a law demanding that goods may not be imported, if they were manufactured under conditions that would not be acceptable in the destination country?

    How about a law that would ban US imports in France (and other european countries) because the poor American workers have to work for more than 35 hours a week?
  • Re:Good for them (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @05:04AM (#19206139)

    Instead, efforts should go in the direction of installing world-wide minimum standards in both regards...
    What're you? 10 years old? Tell you what, lets make full employment compulsory while we're at it so that everyone in the world has a job and make the minimum wage $100/hour so that nobody in the world is poor. It would be just as successful.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 21, 2007 @05:44AM (#19206343)
    The owner, keenly aware of both the monetary value and the environmental hazards of the work, was sympathetic to the workers but made it clear that despite the nature of the work and the few dollars per day they earned, his employees would have no work whatsoever [if this job was not available]

      Yeah, that's the usual platitude in defense of sweatshops. That it's the "best alternative of a bad lot."

      Thing is, the people who use this line usually don't mention why the other choices are so few and so bad. It's due to economic policy and the pressure of foreign multinationals to "modernize" the economy of third world nations, and it's nothing new.
      Back in England there was a thing called 'The Enclosure of the Commons.' This was a period when the people of England had their self-subsistence systematically taken away from them by force of law. New rules took away rights to previously public land and put restrictions on personal gardening on small plots, so people who previously grew their own food or traded with their neighbors were suddenly forced to buy at the markets, which required money, which meant getting a job, probably at a factory. It was frequently justified at the time by letters written by wealthy industrialists (who, in a completely unrelated fact, were having a hard time getting a self-sufficient people of artisans, craftsmen, and farmers to come in and apply for jobs in factories for pennies a week) claiming that leisure-time was bad for people and would lead the commoners to crime and wickedness and perhaps even revolutionary politics. (Gasp!)
      Similar things have happened and are happening all over the world. People have their traditional way of life destroyed, their self-sufficiency ripped away from them, and in the end, are given the 'free choice' of hard labor in a sweatshop or dying of starvation. ...and we're supposed to applaud that?

      There's a good post on Kevin Carson's Mutualist blog on the whole 'Sweatshops Ain't So Bad!' argument over here. [] No, I'm not affiliated, actually I'm more of a red anarchist sort than a mutualist, but damned if he isn't one of the smartest people writing on the internet.
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @05:51AM (#19206377)
    What's a Girlfriend?

    If I remember my Spanish right, it's the English word for "Amiga".
  • Re:Good for them (Score:2, Insightful)

    by demon driver ( 1046738 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @06:58AM (#19206709) Journal
    No wonder believers in a "free market" like to draw such "conclusions". But talking about world-wide social minimum standards does of course not mean minimum wages without minimum social security, while you're implying it would simply mean abolishing sweat shops implying ex-workers starving to death.

    Trying to describe "western-run sweat-shops" as the great new saviour for third-world countries, just because their exploitation is slightly less brutal than that of "local ones" (I won't take that as a proven rule either), is simply cynical.
  • by oDDmON oUT ( 231200 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @07:32AM (#19206879)
    I've said this for years now, that we will be mining old dumps of all sorts for refined materials which will have become too rare or too costly to extract conventionally.
  • Re:Good for them (Score:3, Insightful)

    by demon driver ( 1046738 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @09:50AM (#19208047) Journal

    So another person that's wanting to apply their morality on someone else. Sex work is one of the oldest professions
    Your indifference to one of the world's biggest humanitary problems does not make it better. You're clearly not seeing that even your own words indicate that many women who live below the standards of those you were talking about come to prostitution only as a last resort, while they'd never even think about it under economically secure conditions. And, exceptions notwithstanding, prostitution has always been that way, in any place on the globe. It may well be, though, that in regions where the "normal" exploitation of human workforce has long since aggravated into sexual exploitation as a mass phenomenon, that a general attitude of resign sets in, as noone sees a chance to alleviate the situation, which has already become too commonplace.

    Want proof? Count prostitutes in places where prostitution is such a mass phenomenon, introduce adequate social welfare there, count prostitutes four weeks thereafter.
  • Re:Fool's gold (Score:2, Insightful)

    by HiddenL ( 967659 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @10:54AM (#19208705)
    Because there is only a small percentage of gold in gold ore. Most of gold ore is just useless rock.
  • Re:Good for them (Score:2, Insightful)

    by babblefrog ( 1013127 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @12:04PM (#19209539)
    Sometimes I'm just blown away when somebody's view of the world is so narrow. "What I have in my own (rich) country, people in poor countries should have too!".

    What the heck would you consider the minimum those workers in some of the worlds poorest countries should have? $7.00/hour minimum wage? Sick leave, vacation leave, retirement plan? 6 months of unemployment if they get laid off?

    When the industrial revolution started in the west, people ran from the farms to work in the "dark satanic mills", because they made a lot more money than they would have otherwise. For many it was a choice between a job and starvation, just like the "sweat shop work" that you are talking about.

    Sometimes I think some of our western friends would prefer if the people starved, instead. How about comparing the working conditions in the "sweat shops" to the conditions of other poor people living in those countries, instead of to the condition of westerners working in air-conditioned cubicles. More of an apples-and-apples comparison, I mean.

Mathemeticians stand on each other's shoulders while computer scientists stand on each other's toes. -- Richard Hamming