Many of us, on occasion, will throw out old computers, cell phones, and other electronic equipment. If we’re really good, we take it to a facility that promises to dispose of it safely. To us, this reads “green” and a safe way of disposing of our electronic stuff.

It came as a surprise, then, to read CBS News’ Following The Trail Of Toxic E-Waste, wherein the crew of 60 Minutes tracked some of this e-waste to China:

A great deal of this American e-waste winds up in places like Guiyu. In fact, even some companies promising to recycle it safely will illegally export it, as 60 Minutes reveals. While visiting a Colorado recycling operation, 60 Minutes videotaped and noted the serial number of a container full of cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, generally illegal to export because of high lead content. The container was then shipped to Hong Kong, where local law prohibits the import of toxic e-waste.

Per the article, a black market has arisen in removing valuable parts from old electronic equipment. Far be it from me to tell people how to live, particularly in countries where some of the populace may be horrifically poor, and not to pile on China, but it seems that measures are not being taken to protect either the workers or the environment:

E-waste workers in Guiyu, China, where Pelley’s team videotaped, put up with the dangerous conditions for the $8 a day the job pays. They use caustic chemicals and burn the plastic parts to get at the valuable components, often releasing toxins that they not only inhale, but release into the air, the ground and the water. Potable water must now be trucked into Guiyu and scientists have discovered that the city has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. Pregnancies in Guiyu are six times more likely to result in miscarriages, and seven out of 10 children there have too much lead in their blood.

I’ll admit that it’s tough to watch a country try to improve its economy and standard of living (who could argue with that) while doing so in a way that endangers its people and the environment.

ADDED: After all this, it’s with dim humor that I read Rich nations should ditch ‘unsustainable’ lifestyles:

"Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and a top UN official urged industrialised nations Friday to alter their lifestyles and not let the global financial crisis hamper climate change efforts. Industrialised nations should also help developing countries respond to climate change, Wen said at the opening of a two-day international meeting on global warming in Beijing."

Well. I’m not much of a global warming alarmist, but it’s obvious that crudding up the atmosphere with toxins isn’t good for anyone or anything, and given the rather extreme efforts the Chinese had to undertake to curb auto emissions during the Olympics, it’s a little disingenuous to urge us to alter our lifestyles while asking for help in sorting out their own issues in the next breath. In the West, we call that chutzpah.

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