Electronic Waste: Can We Really Turn the Tide?

Most of the important things in the life of Chinese people happen over dinner conversations. The same goes for Waste Tide and I.

I visited Shantou, my hometown, in the summer of 2011 to attend a childhood friend’s wedding. It takes about three hours one way to fly from Beijing to Shantou down in Guangdong province, not including city transportation and the time spent waiting at the airport. The wedding dinner was costly in terms of both money and time: many attendees were flying in from different cities all over China.

Every Chinese person will experience dinners like this many times in their life. A lot of those dinners will end in people fighting over paying the bill (yes, sometimes even escalating into fistfights), drunken mess, or blatant obscenity.

Thankfully our dinner didn’t turn out like that.

My friend from middle school, Luo, mentioned a small town not far from where we lived: Guiyu (Gui means “precious” and Yu means “isle”, so the name of the town literally translates into “precious isle”; Gui, written as a different character with the same pronunciation, also means “silicon”, making Guiyu sound like “silicon isle”). Apparently, the American company he worked for had been trying to convince the regional government to establish eco-friendly zones and recycle the e-waste, but some local authorities had been standing in their way.

“It’s difficult,” he said, a little too mysteriously, “the situation over there is…complicated.” I knew the word complicated often meant a lot.

Something about his speech caught the attention of the sensitive writer’s radar in my brain. Intuitively, I realized there must be a deeper story to uncover. I took a mental note of the name Guiyu and proceeded with the dinner.

The information I found online afterwards was shocking. Guiyu turned out to be one of the largest e-waste recycling centers in the world, and local workers, without any protection or prior training, manually processed tons of e-waste on a daily basis. In one of the most widespread photos of Guiyu, a boy seeming no older than five sits on top of a pile of discarded circuit boards, computer parts and colorful wires, yet the relaxed look on his face could almost make people mistake the mountain of trash for Treasure Cove at Disneyland.

A place like this was only about sixty kilometers away. I decided to go and see for myself.

After more than an hour’s trip on the wobbly #123 bus, I arrived at the Guiyu central terminal. Still dizzy from the ride, I hailed an electric tricycle that looked as if it was about to fall apart, and told the driver to go to wherever trash was usually taken.

At first, the bleak scenery along the road wasn’t any different from other rural areas in China. However, as the tricycle entered the central zone of waste processing, I could not turn my eyes away again.

…Countless workshops, little more than sheds, were packed tightly together like mahjong tiles along both sides of every street. A narrow lane was left in the middle to allow carts to bring in the trash for processing.

Metal chassis, broken displays, circuit boards, plastic components and wires, some dismantled and some awaiting processing, were scattered everywhere like piles of manure, with laborers, all of them migrants from elsewhere in China, flitting between the piles like flies. The workers sifted through the piles and picked out valuable pieces to be placed into the ovens or acid baths for additional decomposition to extract copper and tin, as well as gold, platinum, and other precious metals. What was left over was either incinerated or scattered on the ground, creating even more trash. No one wore any protective gear.

Everything was shrouded in a leaden miasma, an amalgamation of the white mist generated by the boiling aqua regia in the acid baths and the black smoke from the unceasing burning of PVC, insulation, and circuit boards in the fields and on the shore of the river. The two contrasting colors were mixed by the sea breeze until they could no longer be distinguished, seeping into the pores of every living being.…

(From Waste Tide)

This was not fiction. This was the reality.

I tried to talk to the workers, but they were extremely cautious in front of me, perhaps fearing that I was a news reporter or an environmental activist who could jeopardize their work. I knew in the past that reporters had snuck in and written articles on Guiyu, articles which ended up pressuring the government into closing off many of the recycling centers. As a result, the workers’ income was significantly impacted. Although the money they receive was nothing compared to the salary of a white collar worker in the city, they needed it to survive.

Unfortunately, I could not stay for any longer. My eyes, skin, respiratory system and lungs were all protesting against the heavily polluted air, so I left, utterly defeated.

A few days later I returned to Beijing. My office there was spacious, bright and neat, equipped with an air-purifying machine, a completely different world from the massive trash yard that I had witnessed. Yet sitting there, I could not get that tiny Southern town out of my head. I had to write about it.

In the beginning, the idea emerged as a short story, a brief glimpse into the ecological disaster that was Guiyu; but the more I researched, the more I realized that only a full-length novel could capture all I wanted to say. The story that later became Waste Tide could not be simply reduced to black and white, good and bad: every country, every social class, every authority and even every individual played an important part in the becoming of Guiyu. All of us were equally as responsible for the grave consequence of mass consumerism happening across the globe.

It took me a full year to complete this novel. Having no prior experience with long form stories, I met many unexpected obstacles on the way. Yet I always reminded myself of the people who lived in, worked in, and breathed the air of Guiyu. Not just Guiyu, but in many places around the world, people were struggling to make a life amongst trash. My problems with writing, compared to what they faced everyday, were superficial, almost like mere excuses I made to procrastinate.

After Waste Tide was published in China in 2013, it received much praise from literary critics and awards. But deep inside, a question continued to haunt me: was my work worth anything to Guiyu? Would it change anything for the people living there? They are the true protagonists of my story, after all. I was afraid to return to that tiny town again, in fear of the ugly truth: that I had been exploiting the Guiyu people’s struggles for my own fame and fortune, yet doing nothing to help.

My friend at Greenpeace China told me that environmentalist activity in China has been rather handicapped. By far, the best way we could contribute is to speak up and let more people know about the severe consequences of environment pollution, so that the government could enforce change.

She was right. I needed to let the voices of the Guiyu people be heard.

So I continued to publish science fiction on environmental issues and talked about Guiyu in lectures, speeches and interviews all around the world. Like the snowball effect, more and more people gradually noticed the issue and joined our cause. Some reporters even approached me for a special coverage on e-waste after reading Waste Tide.

Slowly, change has begun to happen.

Six years after the publication of Waste Tide in China, its English version is finally coming out, which will be accompanied by translations in Spanish, German, Russian, Japanese and more in the upcoming future. Here, I wish to acknowledge a few people: my overseas agent Gray Tan and his American counterpart Eddie Schneider, whose patience made all of this possible; Ken Liu, who’s not only an excellent translator, but also the best mentor and friend that I could ask for; my editor Lindsey Hall, whose insight and meticulous work fine-tuned my writing; last but not least, Liz Gorinsky and the legendary David G. Hartwell who has unfortunately passed away – he was the first to discover my book at the Frankfurt Book Fair and decided to publish it in English. Many thanks also to Liu Cixin, Charlie Jane Anders,  David Mitchell, Lavie Tidhar, Maggie Shen King, Andrian Tchaikovsky and Simon Ings for the encouragement and suggestions.

I’m so grateful to all of the people who have supported me through this journey, and I hope that this book won’t disappoint you.

Fortunately, progress has not only been made for Waste Tide in the literary world, but also in the real world. In the beginning of 2019, China enacted a ban on the import of e-waste. Like I had imagined in the final chapter of the story, the government has established eco-friendly zones to give the recycling workers a safer, healthier, work environment and to protect their labor rights.

However, this is nowhere near a happy ending: China has already replaced America as the largest producer of e-waste. All the trash that China fails to recycle will be transferred to a new trash yard, perhaps somewhere in Southeast Asia, Africa or South America. If we continue to fall into the trap of consumerism and blindly indulge in newer, faster, more expensive industrial products, one day we may face trash that is untransferrable, unavoidable, and unrecyclable. By then, we would all become waste people.

 

I even received an email from an American reader, Anthony Martine, who comes from the town with the worst air-quality in the U.S. – Bakersfield, California.

He wrote in the email,

I know that the U.S. is not helping. We ship our electronic waste to China to be dumped in small villages and towns. It is horrible, Stan. When I first saw this, I felt completely numb. I knew that there was nothing I could really do stop this process, even though I wanted it to stop. The systems are bigger than me. To this day, I try to keep all my broken electronics so that they stay here.

[…]

You’re right, these are troubled times. The presidential elections in the U.S. have left so many people, including myself, terrified about the future. Still, we’re holding onto hope. You’re right: change begins with the self.

His words were deeply touching and encouraging. I could never have imagined that someone on the opposite side of the globe would start to care for the life of a group of strangers, and even change their own lifestyle and consumption habits, all because they read my story.

 

Despite the extensive local research, I did not begin to write Waste Tide in China. Its first few chapters were, in fact, born in a European city far from home. In September 2011, when I still worked for Google, I was sent on a three-month-long business trip to Dublin. Winter in Dublin was cold, dark, and wet. With nothing to distract myself besides drinking and watching dog races, I had the chance to pour all my time into writing. So that’s why they call Dublin “The City of Writers”, I remember thinking to myself. This year – eight years after I typed the opening scene to my unformed story – I will be returning to Dublin with the English translation of Waste Tide to attend Worldcon 77. It feels like returning to the starting point after completing a full circle.

Chao, in Chinese, means tide, the rising and falling of the sea due to gravitational force. It also represents the unique culture that I came from, Chaoshan (Teochew). For centuries my kin has been struggling with an interesting self-contradiction in our culture: we are bold, adventurous, especially adept at trading and branching out; but we are, at the same time, stubborn, reserved and pragmatic.

As a Teochew who grew up by the sea, I understand the power of the tide – and how difficult it can be to turn the tide. But I think it’s worth a try.

Enjoy the story!

 

Article translated by Emily Jin.
Waste Tide, translated into English by Ken Liu, is available from Tor Books. Read an excerpt here.

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