China’s economic boom and burgeoning middle class have led it to becomethe world’s second leading producer of electronic garbage(or e-waste) in the world. Every year, the country throws out over100 million computers, 40 million televisions, 20 million air conditioners, and 10 million fridges, to purchase new models.
The vast majority of e-waste from China’s capital, Beijing, makes its to Dongxiaokou, a small village on the outskirts of the city, where hundreds of families make a living by stripping the garbage to its components and reselling the parts.
All that could change in the coming year as the Chinese government has announced that Dongxiaokou is facing demolition to make way for new urban development.
Reuters photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon recently traveled down to the village to capture the bustling recycling trade, even as demolition looms.
Dongxiaokou used to be a small farming community in the northern suburbs of Beijing. However, as the demand for electronic goods has grown over the last 15 years, families have moved in to deal with the ensuing electronic waste.
While large-scale recycling operations capture e-waste from corporations, most everyday consumers give their old and broken electronics to independent garbage collectors who pay for the waste.
Waste-collectors head to wealthy, downtown Beijing with tricycle carriers to wait for residents to offer up potentially lucrative waste. In addition to electronics, collectors will offer money for everything from plastic bottles to household appliances and even newspapers.
The waste-collectors then bring the waste back to Dongxiaokou to sell to families that operate recycling businesses or to sort through the goods themselves. The recyclers fix the electronics that they can and sell them back to consumers at a cheap price. This is a second-hand shop that sells repurposed appliances.
Waste that is unfixable is broken down for scraps or sold in bulk to small recycling factories that have cropped up all over the province. Selling the scraps is a lucrative business. The resale value of metals and rare minerals found in most electronics is high. This man just sold recycled air conditioning units to members of the village.
An entire community of migrants has formed around Dongxiaokou. Once word spread of the booming business in the early 2000s, hundreds of families and migrants moved in to take advantage. Many of those who moved to the village were former farmers that had been struggling to survive on tiny plots of land. This is one of the tenement houses where the recycling workers live.
Though there is a large amount of work available, surviving in the village isn't easy. Most recyclers can work on 2-3 air conditioners per day, which they can sell for $US8 each. Rent for the small tenement houses in the village is around $US160 a month.
Conditions in the village are dirty. There is no proper sewage disposal, running water, or sanitation facilities. Pollutants from recycling have tainted the water, leaving it with a bad smell and odd coloration.
Direct contact with e-waste materials can be dangerous to workers' health and the recycling process produces a lot of pollution. Because the majority of recyclers are small independents, there are no regulations about how the process is carried out and many use acids or fires that are detrimental to the environment.
At its peak, the collection, trading, and recycling process in Dongxiaokou provided livelihoods for nearly 30,000 people.
New migrants arrive every day looking for work, despite the impending demolition. Though the government plans to demolish the area, they have made no plans for alternate way of dealing with the e-waste. Like it or not, the workers of Dongxiaokou are integral to the operation of the city.
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