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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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  • by will_die ( 586523 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @03:16AM (#19205687) Homepage
    People are not dumping this stuff on theses countries, thoses countries are paying for all this scrap.
    The larger of the recycling places actually have people going all around the world tring to purchase large quantities.
    The question is do the richer country act as big brother and say they will not sell the items to theses poorer countries?
  • by dreddnott ( 555950 ) <> on Monday May 21, 2007 @03:20AM (#19205705) Homepage
    I used to work for an electronics recycling company, trueCycle [].

    Not the most scrupulous incorporation in the high desert, but we processed a LOT.

    A good day would have us processing 10 tons (20,000 pounds) of various electronics, most of it selling to final-stage processors for $0.10 to somewhere $1.00 per pound, depending on which gaylord (motherboards, transformers, glass, CPUs, HDDs, etc) and of course the fluctuations in the volatile commodities market.

    The biggest cash cow, of course, was leaded CRT glass - thanks to SB20 and SB50, our processing of CRT glass was subsidised and we received a flat rate of $0.48 per pound on just that, smashed or not smashed. This was lucrative due to the commonality of monitors and the density of the glass, as well as the fact that at any given time we had 10 guys with clawhammers and pneumatic screwdrivers absolutely tearing everything up that I let them get their hands on.

    I worked as Quality Assurance, assessing pallets as they came in and rescuing the good stuff, as well as miscellaneous server and network administration work. You know, the usual stuff when your department knows more about computers than the entire rest of the company, which happened to be too cheap for a dedicated IT staff and commensurate payroll. While I did indeed fix up more than a few computers for eBay and local buyers, the 90% discount and the general poor condition of incoming electronics as well as poor working conditions, chronic understaffing, and a tragic lack of space made resurrecting computers a very small portion of the revenue stream.

    Selling components was a lot more successful, and I always argued for doing this with my coworkers and supervisors. We would sell hundreds of thoroughly-tested HDDs, video cards, RAM sticks, and CPUs of all types at a time. It amazed me at the time (2005-2006) to see how many people were still interested in 10GB drives, 64MB PC100 sticks, and GeForce2 MX cards.

    My favourite part of the job, however, was finding and rescuing antique/vintage computing equipment []. The contract with Dreamworks was also pretty exciting, although 99% of it ended up as unrecognisable scrap. I found myself face to face with an SGI Iris 4D and an even larger system in bad shape that I could not identify, as well as several battered workstations (one labeled "FOONLY" in obvious homage).
  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @04:10AM (#19205905) Journal
    Since 1965, I have been a recyler (cub scouts and boy scouts). Generally, it is paper, glass, and metal. It always struck me as the right thing to do. But the other day it dawned on me that it might be a mistake to do some of this. In particular for the metals. Paper, plastics, and glass will decay if they are not recycled, so it makes good sense to do them right away. But metals are a different issue. It struck me that we might wish to consider simply putting them in a dump for future use. The reason is that somewhere down the road, a number of metals will be very expensive. One example is copper. A number of mines will be used up (much sooner rather than later). While China is about to have 1-2 major copper mines come on-line (in Tibet, they have found a number of resources which is why they actually built the Tibetan railroad), in general, copper has been massively extracted. Within my lifetime, copper is going to head towards being VERY valuable. It seems that it would benefit the countries to garbage dump any waste and then work on creating GOOD extraction approaches. The idea of paying to ship our electronic "waste" to other countries has to be one of the most ludicrous actions that the west takes.
  • Re:Good for them (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dave_boo ( 1089337 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @05:30AM (#19206255)
    So another person that's wanting to apply their morality on someone else. Sex work is one of the oldest professions. If you'd have a girlfriend, you know that you have to pay. Same thing if you visit a hooker. How many slashdot geeks don't have a girlfriend because they're living in mommy's basement? All woman want security. If they can't provide for it themself, they want to make sure their mate can. Those that practice prostitution, especially in the South East Asian part of our world are just more open about it.

    Take for instance my inlaws. Starting with my wife's parents. They are from up country, near Nakhon Sawan, and have, for the area, a successful life. They are farmer, raise cattle, and manufacture wooden goods such as chairs, tables, and doors. Now, even with all this income, due to the economic enviroment they're in, it's not enough. So their two daughters went to Bangkok to find work. I met my wife working in a 7-11, where about 5000 THB($143) a month. Her sister got a job working in a metal factory. She's only making 6000 THB($172) a month. Now, if you figure that rent will cost you around 3000 THB($86) a month (that includes utilities--but don't be expecting to run the air con or have more than a single room and forget about hot water), you're left with 3000 THB($86). Even if you sent NO money home, that leaves you with 100 Bhat($3) a day. Granted, you can take on roomates, but with the aforementioned living conditions, how many can you realistically accomodate? Let's say you take on 1 roomate. That lowers you monthly expenses for the room to 1500 bhat($43), leaving you with 4500 THB($129). So you're now looking at 150 THB($4) a day. Still not much, but if you could live on 100 THB($3) a day, you can send home 1500 THB($43) a month.

    Now, they have 2 younger brothers. Both are in school, but they have to pay. The older one's school is 6000 THB($172), and the younger is 3000 THB($86). The family is very much into making this sacrifice because they don't wish for the boys to live the same life that they've been subjected to. So, just for making the payments, the family needs to come up with 9000 THB($257) every month. This doesn't cover room and board for the older one either. Add in costs raised from just living, you can see that money is always tight. The fact that farming is a seasonal income does absolutely nothing to improve their situation. I've been trying to get them to become more reliant on the furniture making portion of their life, possibly paying workers to man their fields, but they're stubborn old people. Add in the constant bill paying, house upkeep, taxes (government has to get their share!).

    I've taken over the responsibilty of paying for their educations. This has been a huge financial boon for the family. I was truly appalled at the teaching conditions in their old shool. It was practically rote learning, which I hate with a passion. If you can't teach someone to learn on their own, they aren't learning.

    But I digress. Going back to the prostitution business. A girl can work in a bar and make anywhere from 500 THB(14) to 3000 THB($86) a night. Obviously, the more they sling their "goods", the more they make. Not only that, some even end up with sponsors (which I never understood) who pay for them not to continue working. Quite a few of those with sponsors continue working in the bars, so not only do they have a steady income from some foreign sponsor, but continue to make money on an almost daily basis going with customers. Do they need to do this. Obviously not. Does it make more money for family. Assuredly. I wouldn't expect someone who is not of Asian origin to fully understand the ties between family (I'm not Asian, so I can't understand it fully, but I respect it), but the duty that people feel for taking care of their family is real. Everyone takes jobs they wouldn't necessarily agree with, but make more money for them.

    The culture also doesn't stigmatise prostitution like most Western one
  • Re:Good for them (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ajs318 ( 655362 ) <`sd_resp2' `at' `'> on Monday May 21, 2007 @05:34AM (#19206271)
    No it wouldn't. It would, however, level the playing field. Manufacturing industry in the West can't hope to compete with third-world countries where they get away with things like not paying workers a decent wage, having them work in dangerous or unsanitary conditions, or polluting the environment. Why is it OK to treat Chinese workers like that but not British, European or American workers?
  • The payoff? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 1u3hr ( 530656 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @05:55AM (#19206393)
    According to the submitter "The payoff is huge: computer waste contains 17 times more gold than gold ore ..."

    What a load of bullshit. If the payoff was "huge", why would companies pay to have it taken away to China? Gold ore is much easier to process in bulk from fairly homogeneous rock than trying to extract it from a pile of metal, plastic and glass components. Gold ore is anything from 0.5 ppm up, so this "17 times" is a meaningless figure. At best, it means a few grammes of gold per tonne of hardware. How many hundreds of manhours would it take to break it down and separate out the tiny scrapings of gold from electrical contacts? Copper is more easily scavenged from wiring and power supplies.

  • Re:Good for them (Score:2, Interesting)

    by dave_boo ( 1089337 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @07:42AM (#19206937)
    For the exact reason you listed. Demand. Foreigners come here to partake of the trade. I should have qualified my post (I typed for a long time and was too lazy to go back an preview it) by saying those are the earnings of those who service foreigners. Those who work the locals make less. The favourite customers are Japanese. Thai's refer to them as the 3'ers. 3", 3 minutes, 3000 bhat. Some people do attach some stigma too it. The fear of AIDS, unwated pregnancy, etc. is also a deterrant. And a lot of girls only do it to supplment their incomes. Uni girls do it for a new phone for example.

    I wasn't around before foreigners started increasing the price of sex. However, I have traveled through Dubai on numerous occasions. My routine usually went like this: First, shower followed by a trip to a barber for a haircut and a proper shave. Than it was off to a coffee shop, where I could get the best Turkish coffee. Next was some real food. Than a bar was hit up. Obviously, all these trips were made in taxis. I don't know if the drivers get a referall fee, but I have yet to ride in one where the man didn't offer to take me to see the ladies. One time I questioned the driver about it. He told me he had been there 7 years, and in the begining, he had to pay something like 50 dirhams for time with a lady. It has now increased to something like 350 dirhams since all the foreigners are going through there. Mostly Americans coming down from Iraq and having full scrotums. Had they not started doing that, would their prices be that high now?
  • by plierhead ( 570797 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @08:26AM (#19207195) Journal

    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".

    Did you actually look at the pictures?

    Talk about glass half empty!

    Check it out and you will see people hard at work separating the old computer pieces into their constituent metals, so they can be melted down and - RECYCLED!!!!!! Isn't that a good thing???

    This looks to me like a very effective looking recycling program (albeit one that looks like a hellhole on earth to work at!)

    Do you have a better suggestion as to what to do with all this old computer crap (given that it has already been created)??

  • by pbhj ( 607776 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @08:44AM (#19207323) Homepage Journal
    >>> "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"

    This is why the Fairtrade movement is so awesome. It puts the power in the hands of the consumer (where it always has been really) ... don't want the blood of child slaves in your chocolate? Well buy chocolate with the fairtrade logo (from a reputable source that's not likely to be just nicking the logo). m []

    We say that businesses are corrupt, and they are, but we buy their products so we are guilty too. Have any computers got a fairtrade mark? I doubt it.

    [But Greenpeace has a ranking for electronics producers that lists Dell and Nokia at the top and companies like LGE near the bottom.]

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

    by King_TJ ( 85913 ) on Monday May 21, 2007 @10:13AM (#19208257) Journal
    I tend to agree about tariffs being a viable option to help "level the playing field". But "Americans are, on the whole, too lazy to bother with the well being of overseas workers"??

    I fail to see how "laziness" has ANYTHING to do with the discussion. It doesn't seem to me like it's America's responsibility to ensure the well being of overseas workers that don't work for our own companies. America seems like it is always called upon/expected to step in whenever there's a global issue. (Anything from cries for food or monetary assistance when a nation encounters a large disaster, to sending in troops to assist in matters which don't directly affect us.) Then, we're just as often criticized for "meddling" where we "don't belong".

    The only aspect of this we should directly be concerned with in America is the financial one. (EG. Does importing from nations that refuse to uphold standards of living comparable to ours hurt OUR economy in the long-run? If yes, then we need to take actions that help fix it.) Otherwise, for all I care, China, with their poor stance on human rights and environmental issues, can wallow in their own pollution and filth.
  • Re:Good for them (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ElleyKitten ( 715519 ) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {esirnusnettik}> on Monday May 21, 2007 @10:40AM (#19208533) Journal

    If you'd have a girlfriend, you know that you have to pay.
    Bullshit. I've spent more on boyfriends than they have me. Sex shouldn't be about money, and the faster society gets over that concept the better things will be. Anyways, your wife's family sucks. The girls have to get crap jobs, but the boys get to go to school? And the girls have to send money home to pay for their schooling when they can barely make by themselves? Maybe if the people there found it just as important to send the girls to school as the boys there would be less prostitution.

God helps them that themselves. -- Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanac"