Since the mid 1990s, the town of Guiyu, China has been a major processor of e-waste, or electronic waste. Electronic waste refers to used consumer products consisting of computers, fax machines, copy machines, etc. These products make their way from developed countries such as the United States, Europe, and Japan to underdeveloped nations such as China, India, and Africa.
In Guiyu specifically, 75% of their e-waste imports come from the United States, the only developed nation that hasn’t passed any legislation on prohibiting the export of toxic wastes to underdeveloped nations such as China. Although there is legislation in other countries prohibiting the act of exporting, it still occurs illegally. The Chinese government has set laws prohibiting importation of waste, however it only results in smuggling.
The 80% of Guiyu’s population that participates in the processing of the waste do not wear any sort of protective gear, including goggles or masks, to prevent inhalation of the toxic fumes and particles coming from the burning of circuit boards to obtain valuable metals (gold, copper, and silver). Fumes are emitted from the tons and tons of toxic chemicals in computers like mercury, lead, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, and cadmium. Many of these chemicals are considered to be carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, cause neurological harm, and even cancer. They also affect the kidneys, cause brain damage such as lowering IQs in children, muscle weakness, and affect reproductive systems.
My thesis mission is to provide a sort of protection for these communities when engaging in these processes in order to make it less harmful for the workers. The e-waste trade is the economy of the small town of Guiyu therefore it cannot simply be taken away from them. E-waste trading is going to continue for a while despite efforts from many organizations campaigning against companies and governments to use less toxic materials and enact legislation, but both of these are issues that will take time to resolve. I am focusing on a more immediate implementation; I’m concentrating on improving the conditions that the people must live and work as well as making the situation healthier than it currently is.
Working with individuals and organizations that are also focusing on e-waste and toxic environments for laborers, I will be able to develop deep analysis and research of the situation the communities of Guiyu are involved in and get different perspectives on how this problem can be addressed.
In the end I hope to be able to develop a product that will be capable of providing comfort as well as healthier well-being for these workers by filtering out the toxic fumes that they are constantly breathing in 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is not to say that my design is the final word on solving the e-waste problem in Guiyu. It is more a "bandaid" for the situation, a temporary intervention that will make the situation less harmful than it already is. The people of Guiyu have no choice but to do this as work. They are all very aware of the destructive effects on their health, however, they have no choice. It’s an irony; they risk their health to make an income in order for them to be able to make it through the next day.