The electronic wastebasket of the world

Did you ever wonder what happens to your old laptop or cellphone when you throw it away?
Chances are some of your old electronic junk will end up in China.
According to a recent United Nations report, “China now appears to be the largest e-waste dumping site in the world.”
E-waste, or electronic waste, consists of everything from scrapped TVs, refrigerators and air conditioners to that old desktop computer that may be collecting dust in your closet.
Many of these gadgets were initially manufactured in China. Through a strange twist of global economics, much of this electronic junk returns to China to die.
“According to United Nations data, about 70% of electronic waste globally generated ended up in China,” said Ma Tianjie, a spokesman for the Beijing office of Greenpeace.

“Much of [the e-waste] comes through illegal channels because under United Nations conventions, there is a specific ban on electronic waste being transferred from developed countries like the United States to countries like China and Vietnam.”
For the past decade, the southeastern town of Guiyu, nestled in China’s main manufacturing zone, has been a major hub for the disposal of e-waste. Hundreds of thousands of people here have become experts at dismantling the world’s electronic junk.
On seemingly every street, laborers sit on the pavement outside workshops ripping out the guts of household appliances with hammers and drills. The roads in Guiyu are lined with bundles of plastic, wires, cables and other garbage. Different components are separated based on their value and potential for re-sale. On one street sits a pile of green and gold circuit boards. On another, the metal cases of desktop computers.
At times, it looks like workers are reaping some giant plastic harvest, especially when women stand on roadsides raking ankle-deep “fields” of plastic chips.
In one workshop, men sliced open sacks of these plastic chips, which they then poured into large vats of fluid. They then used shovels and their bare hands to stir this synthetic stew.
“We sell this plastic to Foxconn,” one of the workers said, referring to a Taiwanese company that manufactures products for many global electronics companies, including Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.
Dirty, dangerous work
This may be one of the world’s largest informal recycling operations for electronic waste. In one family-run garage, workers seemed to specialize in sorting plastic from old televisions and cars into different baskets. “If this plastic cup has a hole in it, you throw it away,” said a man who ran the operation, pointing to a pink plastic mug. “We take it and re-sell it.”
But recycling in Guiyu is dirty, dangerous work. “When recycling is done properly, it’s a good thing for the environment,” said Ma, the Greenpeace spokesman in Beijing.
“But when recycling is done in primitive ways like we have seen in China with the electronic waste, it is hugely devastating for the local environment.”

According to the April 2013 U.N. report “E-Waste in China,” Guiyu suffered an “environmental calamity” as a result of the wide-scale e-waste disposal industry in the area.
Much of the toxic pollution comes from burning circuit boards, plastic and copper wires, or washing them with hydrochloric acid to recover valuable metals like copper and steel. In doing so, workshops contaminate workers and the environment with toxic heavy metals like lead, beryllium and cadmium, while also releasing hydrocarbon ashes into the air, water and soil, the report said.
For first-time visitors to Guiyu, the air leaves a burning sensation in the eyes and nostrils.
Toxic tech
Studies by the Shantou University Medical College revealed that many children tested in Guiyu had higher than average levels of lead in their blood, which can stunt the development of the brain and central nervous system.
Piles of technological scrap had been dumped in a muddy field just outside of town. There, water buffalo grazed and soaked themselves in ponds surrounded by piles of electronic components with labels like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Epson and Dell.
The enormous animals casually stomped through mounds of sheet glass, which clearly had been removed from video monitors.
Flat screen displays often use mercury, a highly toxic metal.
“Releases of mercury can occur during the dismantling of equipment such as flat screen displays,” wrote Greenpeace, in a report titled “Toxic Tech.” “Incineration or landfilling can also result in releases of mercury to the environment…that can bioaccumulate and biomagnify to high levels in food chains, particularly in fish.”
Most of the workers in Guiyu involved in the e-waste business are migrants from destitute regions of China and poorly educated. Many of them downplayed the potential damage the industry could cause to their health.
They asked only to use their family names, to protect their identity.

“Of course it isn’t healthy,” said Lu, a woman who was rapidly sorting plastic shards from devices like computer keyboards, remote controls and even computer mice. She and her colleagues burned plastic using lighters and blow-torches to identify different kinds of material.
“But there are families that have lived here for generations … and there is little impact on their health,” she said.
Several migrants said that while the work is tough, it allows them more freedom than working on factory lines where young children are not permitted to enter the premises and working hours are stringent.
Used to be worse
Despite the environmental degradation and toxic fumes permeating the air, many in Guiyu said that conditions have improved dramatically over the years.
“I remember in 2007, when I first came here, there was a flood of trash,” said Wong, a 20-year-old man who ferried bundles of electronic waste around on a motorcycle with a trailer attached to it.
“Before people were washing metals, burning things and it severely damaged people’s lungs,” Wong added. “But now, compared to before, the [authorities] have cracked down pretty hard.”
But residents who did not work in the e-waste business offered a very different take on the pollution in Guiyu.
A group of farmers who had migrated from neighboring Guangxi province to cultivate rice in Guiyu told CNN they did not dare drink the local well water.
They claimed if they tried to wash clothes and linens with the water, it turned fabrics yellow.
The head of the group, who identified himself as Zhou, had another shocking admission.
“It may not sound nice, but we don’t dare eat the rice that we farm because it’s planted here with all the pollution,” Zhou said, pointing at water-logged rice paddy next to him.

Asked who did eat the harvested rice, Zhou answered: “How should I know? A lot of it is sold off … they don’t dare label the rice from here as ‘grown in Guiyu.’ They’ll write that its rice from some other place.”
Not that surprising considering that the latest food scandal to hit the country earlier this month is cadmium-laced rice. Officials in Guangzhou city, roughly 400 kilometers away from Guiyu, found high rates of cadmium in rice and rice products. According to the city’s Food and Drug Administration samples pulled from a local restaurant, food seller and two university canteens showed high levels of cadmium in rice and rice noodles. Officials did not specify how the contaminated rice entered the city’s food supply.
CNN made several attempts to contact the Guiyu town government. Government officials refused to comment on the electronic waste issue and hung up the phone.
However, it did appear that government efforts to restrict imports of foreign waste are reducing the flow of e-trash here.
“Why are they stopping the garbage from reaching us?” asked one man who ran a plastic sorting workshop. “Of course it’s hurting our business,” he added.
Domestic e-waste grows
The Chinese government had some success regulating e-waste disposal with a “Home Appliance Old for New Rebate Program,” which was tested from 2009 to 2011.
With the help of generous government subsidies, the program collected tens of millions of obsolete home appliances, according to the U.N.
Even if Chinese authorities succeed in limiting smuggled supplies of foreign garbage, the U.N. warns that the country is rapidly generating its own supply of e-waste.
“Domestic generation of e-waste has risen rapidly as a result of technological and economic development,” the U.N. reported. It cited statistics showing an exponential surge in sales of TV’s, refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners and computers in China over a 16-year period.
To avoid a vicious cycle of pollution, resulting from both the manufacture and disposal of appliances, Greenpeace has lobbied for manufacturers to use fewer toxic chemicals in their products.
The organization also has a message for consumers who seem to swap their phones, tablets and other computer devices with increasing frequency.
“Think about where your mobile phone or where your gadgets go,” said Ma, the Greenpeace activist.
“When you think about changing [your phone], or buying a new product, always think about the footprint that you put on this planet.”


Swiss shooting: Two injured in Zurich’s Langstrasse

Two Turkish men have been injured in a shooting in central Zurich, according to police.

A gunman opened fire in a building in the Langstrasse area in the Swiss city at 15:00 local time (13:00 GMT), local media say.

Police say they are searching for a suspect who fled the scene.

They have cordoned off the surrounding streets, according to the Tribune de Geneve.

The men, both Turkish nationals, are believed to be in stable conditions in hospital.

Police have evacuated four people from the building, according to Swiss media.

The motive for the shooting remains unclear.

Reporters say the Langstrasse area is mixed – many immigrant communities live there and it is known as an area affected by the sex trade and crime.

China in soft power push with foreign students

Gracen Duffield, 45, sold her house in Austin, Texas and threw in a successful career in IT with Dell Inc. to take MBA studies in China — “somewhere with real opportunities,” she said.

Leea Tiusanen, a 27-year-old from Finland, took a sabbatical from her managerial role at a large retail company to complete one year of her business degree in China. “There’s so much more happening over here (China) than there is in Europe,” she said.

And Jonathan Oi, a 25-year-old American with Chinese parents said he “returned to the motherland” to get his MBA at Guanghua School of Management to help differentiate himself from his American graduate-school peers.
These three are just a few of the thousands of western students now flocking to China for higher education, cultural adventure and — more often than not — an edge in an extremely competitive job market.

As Chinese swell the ranks at western universities, the numbers of foreign students studying in China are also burgeoning — increasing by 10% in a year to more than 290,000 in 2011, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education (MOE).

The push for foreign students is a deliberate strategy by the Chinese government — through investment in scholarships and facilities — to foster a greater understanding of their culture and language globally, and expand Beijing’s “soft power,” academics say. Meanwhile, governments in the U.S., Asia and Europe also are investing in their own China study programs, often in conjunction with the Chinese government, breeding a new generation of Sino-savvy graduates.

“It’s student exchanges linked to diplomacy,” said Gerard Postiglione, a professor of education at the University of Hong Kong.

Education’s soft power

China’s current five-year plan for the education sector aims for higher education institutes in the country to accommodate around 500,000 international students by 2020, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

China is rapidly expanding its Mandarin and English-language offerings — 34 Chinese universities now offer English-taught programs, according to the MOE — and the government said it plans to fund 50,000 scholarships for overseas students by 2015.
“If you look at Xi Jinping’s speeches since he became president, he clearly says that we want soft power and we are willing to spend on this. And this is what the Chinese government is doing (with their international education programs),” said Yang Rui, a University of Hong Kong professor who has written extensively on the issue.

Governments in the U.S. and Europe are investing in their own programs to encourage more of their students to study in China.
In 2010, the U.S. launched the “100,000 Strong Initiative” that aims to increase the number of American students studying in China to 100,000 by 2014, according to the 100,000 Strong website. The EU-China High Level People-to-People Dialogue (HPPD), described by the EU as “the third pillar of EU-China relations,” facilitated the first-ever higher education talks between Europe and China in April, where the Chinese government announced it would provide 30,000 scholarships for EU students over the next five years, according to Xinhua.

But while the west wants improved relations, Yang believes China’s communist system of government has resulted in a program more about control than diplomacy.

“Using education as part of a soft-power push has been practiced by many countries,” he said. “The U.S., France and Japan have been doing this for a long time. But the way the Chinese are doing this is not skillful.”
Still, foreign students are pouring in. About 290,000 studied in China in 2011, compared to just over 60,000 in 2001, according to the MOE. South Koreans (62,442) were the largest group of foreign students studying in China in 2011, followed by Americans (23,292). The Japanese (17,961), Russians (13,340), Indonesians (10,957) and Indians (9,370) also have large student populations, while almost 50,000 Europeans undertook some form of tertiary study in China in 2011, led by France (7,592) and Germany (5,451).

Are Chinese universities up to the challenge?

While foreign students in China say it’s more exciting studying here than in the west, it’s also substantially cheaper.

University tuition fees in China average about $1,000 per semester, according to the MOE, while rent, food and other incidentals are also substantially less.

Tuition fees alone in the United States can cost anywhere from $12,000 to $37,000 per year, according to the U.S. National Center for Education, depending on the type of institution. That’s on top of the average $15,000 per year required for accommodation, food and academic supplies.

But questions have been raised over the quality of China’s university education.
“On international rankings, Chinese universities did not perform as well as other countries, in particular given the size of the system, but there have been improvements in recent years,” said Nick Clark, from World Education Services, a New York-based education research organization.

Yang, who regularly visits universities across China for his research, agrees. “I get many complaints about the quality of the teaching (from foreign students studying in China), especially with regional universities.”
Professor Darryl Jarvis from the Hong Kong Institute of Education said there is enormous diversity among the tertiary institutions in China, and far less quality programs that use English for instruction compared to countries like the U.S., UK, Australia, and Canada, the top destinations for overseas university students in 2012, according to UNESCO.

“The biggest barrier China faces in attracting overseas students is the medium of instruction. Rightly or wrongly, English remains the language for business and academia and the rise of China is not going to change that overnight,” Jarvis said.

Learning through experience

And while many Chinese academics who trained overseas are now returning to China, attracting good-quality teachers and researchers with a high level of English remains a problem.

Paul Gillis, an expatriate American professor and co-director at Peking University’s business school in Beijing, says that although the teaching is rewarding, China won’t be able to fill its “insatiable demand” for quality foreign professors until they start paying appropriate salaries.

“This is China’s century. Here I have the ability to train some of most brilliant minds in the world and have a much bigger impact than I can anywhere else,” said Gillis, when asked why he chose to teach in China over a western university. “I think I have the best job in the world for 29 days of the month. Then comes payday.”

But Beijing is investing heavily in its universities to overcome gaps in quality, academics say.
“There is definitely a desire to see institutions perform better in the rankings,” said Clark. “Funding through government programs are specifically designed to boost standards in ‘key’ research areas, while the banding together of the top nine Chinese institutions under the C9 League is a clear indication that the country would like to see its best institutions competing at a global level of excellence.”

For students like Jonathan Oi, the shortcomings he has encountered with Peking University’s “relatively young” business program are more than compensated for in the lessons learned outside the classroom.

“You shouldn’t come to China looking for a Western-style education or you will be disappointed,” Oi said. “Previously education to me was all about the books and the quality of the classes, but you need to factor in the outside experiences as well.”

Motorola opening nation’s first smart phone assembly plant

Cell phone pioneer Motorola announced Wednesday that it’s opening a Texas manufacturing facility that will create 2,000 jobs and produce its new flagship device, Moto X, the first smart phone ever assembled in the U.S.

The company has already begun hiring for the Fort Worth plant. The site was most recently unoccupied but was once used by fellow phone manufacturer Nokia, meaning it was designed to produce mobile devices, said Will Moss, a spokesman for Motorola Mobility, which is owned by Google.

“It was a great facility in an ideal location,” said Moss, who said it will be an easy trip for Motorola engineering teams based in Chicago and Silicon Valley, and is also close to the company’s service and repair operations in Mexico.

The formal announcement came at AllThingsD’s D11 Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., from Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s office administers a pair of special state incentive funds meant to help attract job-creating businesses to the state, but Moss said the Republican governor did not distribute any money to close this deal.

“Motorola Mobility’s decision to manufacture its new smart phone and create thousands of new jobs in Texas is great news for our growing state,” Perry said through a spokeswoman. “Our strong, healthy economy, built on a foundation of low taxes, smart regulation, fair legal system and a skilled workforce is attracting companies from across the country and around the world that want to be a part of the rising Texas success story.”

The factory will be owned and run by Flextronics International Ltd., a Singapore-based contract electronics manufacturer that has had a long relationship with Motorola.

Assembly accounts for relatively little of the cost of a smart phone. The cost largely lies in the chips, battery and display, most of which come from Asian factories. For instance, research firm iSuppli estimates that the components of Samsung’s latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S4, cost $229, while the assembly costs $8.

In December, Apple Inc. said it would move manufacturing of one of its existing lines of Mac computers to the U.S. this year, reversing decades of increasing outsourcing. The company has come under some criticism for working conditions at the Chinese factories where its products are assembled.

Some other manufacturers, such as Hewlett-Packard Co., have kept some PC assembly operations in the U.S.

Moss said the Moto X will go on sale this summer. He said he could provide few details, citing company secrets. He said the idea from the beginning was to bring manufacturing back to the U.S.

“It’s obviously our major market so, for us, having manufacturing here gets us much closer to our key customers and partners as well as our end users,” he said. “It makes for much leaner, more efficient operations.”

But Motorola will still have global manufacturing operations, including at factories in China and Brazil.

“Fact remains that more than 130 million people in the U.S. are using smart phones,” Mark Randall, Motorola’s senior vice president of supply chain and Operations, said in a statement, “but until Moto X, none of those smart phones have been built in the USA.”

60 Years After Man First Climbed Everest, the Mountain Is a Mess

Time can erode even the greatest of achievements, as they’re repeated or surpassed: think Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, Chuck Yeager’s smashing of the sound barrier, Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person in space. Perhaps that has happened to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who 60 years ago today became the first people to reach the peak of Mount Everest. It was a mountain that had defeated or killed all who had tried before, and Hillary and Norgay were only able to remain on the peak for 15 minutes before they had to begin descending, low on oxygen. They truly went where no man had gone before.

Today, though, Everest’s peak is a decidedly less lonely place. More than 3,500 people have successfully climbed the 29,029 ft. (8,848 m) mountain — and more than a tenth of that number scaled the peak just over the past year. On one day alone in 2012, 234 climbers reached the peak. As more and more people try to test themselves against Everest — often paying over $100,000 for a “guided climb” — this desolate mountain is becoming as crowded as a Tokyo subway car at rush hour. Climbers have complained about waiting for hours in bottlenecks on the way to the summit, a situation that isn’t just uncomfortable — it’s cold and windy up there — but downright dangerous. If bad weather strikes during one of those bottlenecks, climbers can and do die, as happened in the sudden 1996 blizzard that took the lives of eight climbers near the summit, a disaster that later became the Jon Krakauer book Into Thin Air.

But the tiresome, dangerous crowds aren’t the only problems on Everest. All those climbers need to bring a lot of gear—and much of that gear ends up being left on the mountain, sometimes even the summit itself. Mt. Everest—once the most remote and forbidding spot on the planet—is becoming the world’s tallest trash heap.

Expedition teams have left empty oxygen canisters, torn tents and other leftover equipment along the paths that lead from base camp to the summit. And because Everest is so cold and icy, the waste that’s left there, stays there, preserved for all time.

You can’t necessarily blame the climbers, especially inexperienced ones, for their littering habit. Even under the best conditions, climbing the tallest mountain in the world is exhausting, dangerous work. Dropping used supplies on the mountain rather than carrying it with them can save vital energy and weight. It’s not exactly equivalent to tossing a beer can in a city park. But the accumulated trash is still steadily ruining one of the most unique places on Earth. “You are surrounded by filth,” the mountaineer Paul Thelan told Germany’s Die Welt recently.

But the good news is that some mountaineers are taking it upon themselves to clean up Everest. Thelan and his friend Eberhard Schaaf are part of the annual Eco Everest Expedition, which has been cleaning up trash from base camp to the summit since 2008. So far they’ve collected over 13 tons of garbage, as well as a whole lot of frozen excrement and the occasional frozen corpse. (Nothing ever goes away on Everest.) And just recently a joint India-Nepal military team collected over two tons of garbage on the slopes of the mountain.

Some of that trash is even being used for a higher purpose—in the spiritual sense, if not the altitude one. As part of the Mt. Everest 8848 Art Project, a group of 15 artists from Nepal collected 1.5 tons of garbage brought down the mountain by climbers. They’ve transformed the cans and oxygen cylinders—and in one case, part of the remains of a helicopter—into 74 pieces of art that have already gone on exhibition in Nepal’s capital. Part of the proceeds from sales will go to the Everest Summiteers Association, which has help collect tons of debris off the mountain. This is high-end recycling.

The association estimates that there might still be 10 tons of trash left on the mountain, and if the numbers of climbers on Everest keeps increasing, that figure will only grow. There’s no beating Hillary and Norgay, who pulled off a feat 60 years ago that many thought was physically impossible. But at least the thousands of climbers who have followed in their footsteps can take better care of this magnificent mountain.

Google Is Reportedly Testing Blimps That Dole Out Wireless Internet Signals

This past winter, I found myself at the intersection of Green Street and High Street in Charlestown, Massachusetts, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but one of Google’s Street View cars.

“Here comes my 15 minutes of fame,” I thought to myself. “I shall be immortalized in the Street View imagery of this intersection — right in my own neighborhood.” Until the next time a Google Street View car swings through here and takes new photos, all of my neighbors will wave to me, shouting, “Hey, lookin’ good, Street View Man!” They’ll never take the time to learn my real name, of course.

Well, Google still hasn’t updated the Street View imagery with whichever images have me in them (consequently, nobody waves to me), but the thrill of seeing a Street View car so close that I could touch it brought with it a rush of adrenaline so overpowering it was as though I stared down an entire pride of lions, looked the leader in its eyes and whispered, “Catch me if you can,” before taking off like a two-legged antelope.

Maybe it wasn’t quite that exciting. But you’re here to read about blimps anyway.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting, in several words, that Google wants to bring Internet access to parts of the world where there is no Internet access or where there’s only spotty, slow Internet access. That much should not be a surprise. How Google would go about bringing Internet access to these areas is slightly more interesting, however.

One way to do this is by leveraging unused airspace that traditionally carries TV signals, also known as white space. Google already has a field trial underway in Cape Town, South Africa, whereby three base stations planted at a local university will send wireless signals out to 10 nearby schools.

That’s all well and good, but what if you don’t even have the proper infrastructure in place to house the requisite base stations? The answer might ultimately be found in the skies.

According to the Journal‘s article, Google “has worked on making special balloons or blimps, known as high-altitude platforms, to transmit signals to an area of hundreds of square miles, though such a network would involve frequencies other than the TV broadcast ones.”

This information reportedly comes from “people familiar with the strategy,” so take it with a grain of salt. It could very well be that Google is testing such a system but may never bring it to market. The same sources told the Journal that Google “has also considered helping to create a satellite-based network.”

So which approach will work best? “There’s not going to be one technology that will be the silver bullet,” said one of the Journal‘s sources. But if you someday see a Google blimp in the sky, it may be blanketing your town with wireless Internet signals. Or maybe even taking pictures at angles the Street View cars can’t manage. Or both!


Mother of newborn saved from toilet pipe sorry for what she did

The mother of a newborn rescued over the weekend from a toilet pipe in China “deeply regrets what she did,” police said Tuesday.
The infant, a baby boy, was saved Saturday in the Chinese city of Jinhua. He remains in the hospital, where he is reported to be in stable condition.

“Local police have found the mother. She deeply regrets what she did. Details of the case are still under investigation,” Jinhua police said on the social media website Weibo.

According to a local police officer involved in the case, the mother, whose identity has not been disclosed, says she rushed to the toilet after she began to feel stomach pains and subsequently gave birth to the baby.

“She tried to grab something to help herself because there is too much blood,” the police officer said in a video interview Tuesday. “She couldn’t hold the baby anymore, and he slides into the sewage through the hole of the toilet.”

During questioning, the mother said she never intended for the baby to end up in the toilet, the police officer said in the interview with a local TV channel that was posted on the police’s official Weibo account.

She said that after she was unable to retrieve the baby with a stick, she decided to flush the toilet to clear away the blood, according to the officer, whose name and title wasn’t provided in the interview.

She then called the landlord, saying she’d heard a strange sound that seemed like a baby and suggested that the landlord and others come to check, the police officer said.

When police arrived at the apartment, they found a pair of pants stained with blood, he said.

Jinhua police didn’t respond to a request Wednesday for further information on the case.

Police posted images of the infant at the hospital, showing him sleeping in an incubator and being attended to by various nurses.
Dramatic video of his rescue made global headlines and sparked sympathy.

According to police, one of the firefighters involved visited the baby and sent over clothes, formula powder and diapers.

Someone else sent milk bottles and formula, along with a note that read: “Don’t let the baby starve. Let’s pray,” they said.

Baby rescued from sewage pipe

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV had previously reported that alarmed neighbors heard the baby’s cries and called the fire department.
Unable to pull the infant out, rescuers went to the floor below and sawed away a section of pipe.

But still, the baby was stuck, so both the section of pipe and the infant were taken to a hospital.

Working together, rescuers and doctors began removing the pipe, piece by piece.

CCTV video showed the exact moment hands in white gloves gingerly pulled away a part of the pipe, revealing the tiny face of a newborn.