E-Stork I: Where Poisoned e-Waste Babies Come From

Part I:   Just returned from a Middlebury College Environmental Studies Event... Zbignew Brzinski headlined a presentation on Fresh Water Shortages in China; Christine E. Boyle, a Fulbright Scholar from NC, presented on China's water policy.

China needs to get very serious about water.  The easiest way to conserve water is to charge what it costs to consume - or costs to DESPOIL it.  Whether to tax water at industry or to tax it at households...

Clean water policy has an important history in the USA.  The Blackstone River laws passed in Massachusetts in 1912 were a turning point for the industrial revolution.  The Clean Water Act of 1972 became important to the recycling industy, because it gave more value to recycled office paper  - because it was pre-bleached.  When the mills had to pay more to bleach fibers, office paper became more valuable.

E-Waste Watchdogs say a significant source of Chinese water pollution comes from primitive computer recycling.  At least, that's what we are told despoiled the river in Guiyu.  The allegation that most of that dumping came from imports from the USA has been largely discredited - Beijing alone generates 8 million pieces of "ewaste" per year, according to China Daily.

Irregardless whether the junk computers in Guiyu come from Chinese collectors, or from American non-e-steward recycling companies, polluting fresh water is unsustainable. As a former environmental regulator, I know there is one important step in investigating river pollution.

Arsenic in a water sample... it's normal to look upstream.

When high levels of arsenic were found in the West Bengal rivers in India and Bangladesh, it became one of the most researched rivers in the world.  The Louhajang River was  investigated upstream.   They found this textile manufacturing center was dumping dye, flame retardant, and bleach straight into the bloody river.

The pollution of the Louhajang parallels the Blackstone River of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.   Textile mills in Worcester, Massachusetts, were upstream.

The most recent story about river pollution is located at the Cape Fear River in Fayettteville, North Carolina. Last week, investigators went upstream.   There they found a very old industry... the TEXFI textile plant... the same pollution culprit as Louhajang and Blackstone polluters.

The Clean Water Action groups in Massachusetts and in North Carolina have a lot of empathy for Chinese textile communities.  Industrial revolution can lead to cost cutting competition, pollution, and child labor.

In each of these cases, anyone who wears clothing or walks on carpet (with its flame retardants) has contributed dollars to the source of the pollution.  China's command of the textile market has led to enormous pollution of rivers, and photos of children working on clothing are as heartbreaking (shanghaiist.com)  as anything in the BAN photos on e-waste.  (We have yet to hear for a ban on clothing).   The reaction in China, according to the seminar, has been to attempt to improve and regulate textile manufacturing polluters.  The dualing bureaucracies and seats of economic power - licensing power - are fighting a pitched battle

When BAN.org found toxic arsenic in the river beside Guiyu, China, they created a sensation by tying the poison to pictures of babies, and then tying the babies to USA used electronic "ewaste" recycling exports. It was a man-bites-dog story, irresistible.  Yet a decade later, there is no "upstream" research similar in scope to the West Bengal Rivers or Blackstone.

American Mill Child 1912
The American Press, even respected journals like CBS 60 Minutes and NPR Terry Gross's Fresh Air, still report that the exported e-waste from American recycling companies poisoned the babies in Guiyu, despite proof that China generates more than enough waste electronics to account for the pile.  But that's only part of the problem.  In ten years, no journalist has traveled upstream.  Meanwhile, toxics are showing up in other places in China where there are no "e-waste imports".

The Blackstone River, the Louhajang River, the Cape Fear River... what do they have in common besides upstream textile industries?  The photo above is part of the "Mill Children" series, photos taken of child labor practices common to the industrial revolution in the USA.

State regulatation of the Blackstone River industries in Massachusetts in 1912 was leveraged by the journalism industry, which was chronicling the child laborers in Worcester.  Child labor got a visceral reaction, which made the photos of the polluted river also seem abhorrent.

Chinese textile workers (Greenpeace 2011)
Greenpeace this year is trying to bring the Blackstone River Valley reform of 1912 to China.  Reports in BBC and The Guardian and WSJ all gave major coverage to the campaign to tag big name clothing manufacturers like Nike with images of Chinese children working in polluted environments.  The Greenpeace photo at left is titled  "textile_pollution_boy.jpg"

If you want your environmental cause to succeed, you need pictures of exploited children.  It was part of the recipe for cleaning up the rivers in Massachusetts a century ago.   I don't disagree with it, as long as the upstream SCIENCE precedes it. I don't disagree with guns, if they are pointed at and wielded by the right people.  What I do disagree with is when the enforcement goes off half-cocked, creating the impression that good scrap metal recycling causes problems like arsenic which are actually caused by mining, smelting, or unrelated industries (like textiles).

In the case of Guiyu, a tiny little non-profit, without the oversight of Greenpeace board of directors, or the history of NRDC, got poster children to define "e-waste" policy.  What we ended up with was less affordable internet for Cairo.  The poisoned baby pictures got to the journalists before the science did.  They never went upstream.

The OK Tedi River in Papua New Guinea alarms me most, because it's in a rain forest.  There is almost no one downstream to complain.  It's the mining, stupid.  If we attack recycling, we get more river pollution, not less.

Science and economics.  We can't just ban markets.  We need to harness them.  Tomorrow Part II... The E-Stork delivers baby pictures to journalists.

Did You Know?
Children as young as age six were hired to work in the textile mills of the Blackstone River Valley. These adolescent workers were employed by the Lonsdale Company, c. 1912. Photos such as this helped lead to the passage of child labor laws.

1 comment:

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

Author Adam Minter re-visited Guiyu after this blog was published. Indeed, Guiyu's main industry is textiles. That's where the arsenic etc. come from upstream. http://retroworks.blogspot.com/2013/05/basel-action-network-explains-80-or.html