The old Motorola has been in the back of a drawer since 2004; the Nokia was beneath a pile of papers on the piano since early 2009 (I think). In the United States, they're junk-drawer fodder, unwanted by a culture (and me) fixated on the next upgrade. For the environmentally minded, they're something much worse: e-waste, the catchall term for old electronic devices that nobody wants anymore.
But in China, where I've taken a subway to the north side of Shanghai with a clear plastic bag that holds five old cell phones that I plan to sell at a used-electronics market, my old phones aren't e-waste. Rather, they're a low-cost means to provide wireless communication to some of the hundreds of millions who can't afford or don't want to pay for a new phone. At least, that's what I assume.
Inside a long, two-story used-electronics building, I visit one booth where two spikyhaired young men labor together over an open laptop with a voltage meter, checking connections. One looks mostly free, so I stop and offer him my clear plastic bag full of cell phones. He looks up, his eyes narrow at the motley sack, and he shakes his head.
I move along to the next booth, where a tough-faced young woman, maybe 25, takes a quick glance at my bag and shakes her head. I guess I see her point: She has phones in her display case, yes, but none looks nearly as old as mine. All of the phones have Internet capability. "Three-G," she says. "Three-G."
I walk out the door and wander down the street. I come across a box filled with old computer motherboards. I consider dropping my phones into the box and ending this obviously pointless quest.
Then I reconsider. Those boards are almost certainly bound for Guiyu, China's biggest and most notorious e-waste recycling zone. The place where a 2010 study revealed that 81.8% of a cohort of village children under the age of 6 were suffering from lead poisoning. The likely source of the poison was lead dust generated by the breaking of circuit boards and the melting of lead solder to extract gold, copper, and other precious and semiprecious metals. Gold on the circuit boards is removed using highly corrosive acids; once the acids are used up, they're often dumped in rivers and other open bodies of water.
Something occurs to me: Travel to Guiyu and sell my phones there. It's a preposterous idea. The town's traders aren't keen to have foreign journalists chronicle the worst of what Guiyu has to offer. But as I ride the subway home, I decide that I'm the man for the job.
I find an Asian-American scrap-metal processor, whom I will call Henry, who agrees to take me to Guiyu to sell my phones. He's a significant exporter of scrap (including electronic scrap) from developed-world countries to China, and he maintains tight connections to China's environmental policy makers, regulators, and customs officials, as well as state-owned companies. We're accompanied by Henry's Foshanbased partner, whom I'll call Du, and a young processor and trader, whom I'll call Ge.
It's a five-hour drive from Shenzhen to Guiyu, and on the way there, Henry offers me a master class in Chinese e-waste recycling He takes a look at one of my old phones and tells me, "Okay, see this phone. Maybe it's a 1999 phone. It's a Samsung." His eyes light up. "Because I know it's a 1999, I know that it has a certain kind of chip that I can sell for a certain price. Maybe I know that the screen has a different value. Maybe I know there's memory in it, too. I can see more value in it than you can."
"Who buys it?"
He laughs. "Somebody who wants to use the chip again! Companies that make scrolling digital signs, they like these older chips. They can run that application for a long time."
In other words, the chip in my old Samsung might be extracted and then transplanted into a scrolling digital sign purchased by a Kansas diner to advertise the daily lunch specials. It's a downgrade from running spreadsheets, web browsers, and games, but it sure beats digging up gold, copper, and silicon for a new one.
It's night when we enter Guiyu, driving over a short, arched bridge that rises over a dark canal that separates it from Puning, a dense city of 1.5 million that is one of China's latest boomtowns. We turn hard right into an alley and stop. I follow Henry, Ge, and Du out of the van and into a clear, starry night. There's a thin, murky smell—chemical, like melted plastic, and vaguely sweet, like chrysanthemums. As it fills my lungs, I shorten my breaths. Across the road are a few large plastic sacks filled with rectangular PC cases, and then . . . distance. "A few years ago," Henry whispers to me, "one mu [0.16 acres] over there was worth $80,000. Now, $1 million."
In Guiyu, the recyclers have so much money and so few places to spend it. So they buy real estate. Henry nods at a high, spiked gate that blocks the entrance to a dimly lit warehouse. "This guy's son owns that land," he says, pointing across the road to the empty space.
"This guy" turns out to be a bony man in his early sixties. Du, Henry whispers to me, has been doing business with the old man for years, sending electronic scrap from Foshan to Guiyu. From Guiyu, it goes back to Shenzhen and is remade into new electronics. It's the common path trod by electronic scrap from the developed world to China. Increasingly, it's also what happens to the growing flood of electronic scrap generated by the Chinese too.
I watch the old man use a key to unlock the gate from the inside. Once we're inside, he relocks it. The security makes sense: Spread out before us are thousands of boxes in haphazard piles that fill a space the size of a hockey rink. I see motherboards, pieces of mainframe computers, and hard drives; electrocardiogram units, keyboards, laptop fans, and screens. Almost none of the e-waste looks used. HP laptop screens are still wrapped in cartons labeled hp. That box of Panasonic screens in the corner? They're wrapped in plastic, with individual pink slips labeled UNSERVICEABLE and PANASONIC AVIONICS CORPORATION.
The manufacturers named on those boxes are located four or five hours south of here, in Shenzhen, Dongguan, or Zhongshan—the cities where so much of the world's electronic gadgetry is manufactured. Their surplus is Guiyu's inventory.
For the old farmer, it's the reuse of chips that makes the real money. According to Henry—and the Guiyu Resource Recycling Association—the top customer is Chenghai, a nearby town nicknamed Toy City due to its high concentration of toy manufacturers. Many of the toys made there are electronic, and they require microprocessors of the sort that are recovered in Guiyu. Think about that: Somewhere, a parent is giving a child a toy made from used computer chips extracted in one of Guiyu's workshops.
It's early afternoon the next day when I ask Henry if I'll still have the chance to sell my e-waste. So far, I've watched Henry and Du meet with wealthy traders, but I don't feel like I've encountered anyone who would care to buy my phones. He assures me that I'll have that chance when we drop in on Ge's family.
Ge's home is on a narrow, dusty lane and protected by a high concrete wall and a heavy steel gate that requires several keys to open. We step past it into a small courtyard filled with stacks of old desktop PCs, monitors, burned circuit boards, and a fish cage full of dismantled cell phones waiting to be divided into their parts. Off to the side is a burn shed, one of hundreds in Guiyu. Before I can get much of a look, I'm directed into the house.
Ge's mother emerges from the kitchen with a plate of freshly cut watermelon and giggles at me as she places it on the table. One by one, Ge's brothers and cousins greet Henry and Du. Henry introduces me as the son of a U.S. scrapman, and their eyes open wide.
"I want to know the price of some stuff," I tell them, and open my bag. I place each of my five cell phones onto the sofa. The young men reach for the devices, turn them in their hands, one by one, and discuss the kinds of chips they contain, the amount of gold they might hold. "Unbelievable how they know all of the chips just by looking at the phone model," Henry says with wonder.
"The phones aren't reusable?"
"Of course not!" He laughs. "They're five years old. Who wants them? Even in Africa, the market isn't so good for these anymore." Even in Africa, where the living standards are often lower than the poor villages that supply labor to Guiyu, they want something better. The youngest of the six men tosses my old Samsung phone up and down in his hand and says that the whole lot—all of the phones—will go for around $16 per kilogram.
They look at me, and then they look at Henry. "Do you want to take them with you?"
I look at my old phones spread out on the sofa. "I don't think so," I answer.
"We'll recycle them for you, then."
A version of this article appeared in the December 2013 / January 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.