China now produces more than 1 million tons of e-waste each year, said Jamie Choi, a toxics campaigner with Greenpeace China in Beijing. That adds up to roughly 5 million television sets, 4 million fridges, 5 million washing machines, 10 million mobile phones and 5 million personal computers, according to Choi.
"Most e-waste in China comes from overseas, but the amount of domestic e-waste is on the rise," he said.
This ugly business is driven by pure economics. For the West, where safety rules drive up the cost of disposal, it's as much as 10 times cheaper to export the waste to developing countries. In China, poor migrants from the countryside willingly endure the health risks to earn a few yuan, exploited by profit-hungry entrepreneurs.
International agreements and European regulations have made a dent in the export of old electronics to China, but loopholes — and sometimes bribes — allow many to skirt the requirements. And only a sliver of the electronics sold get returned to manufacturers such as Dell and Hewlett Packard for safe recycling.
Upwards of 90 percent ends up in dumps that observe no environmental standards, where shredders, open fires, acid baths and broilers are used to recover gold, silver, copper and other valuable metals while spewing toxic fumes and runoff into the nation's skies and rivers.