August 31, 2011 11:30 am

Chinese electronics makers fail to keep it clean

There are few places in China more notorious for environmental pollution than Taiyuan. The capital of the northern province of Shanxi is at the heart of the country’s coal industry and has long suffered from unrelenting smog.

So when Foxconn Technology Group, the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer by revenue, began moving some of its production to inland provinces six years ago, local authorities in Taiyuan lobbied for them to set up shop there, hoping for new employment from a cleaner industry. Now, some local residents regret Foxconn’s presence.

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According to a report by five Chinese environmental groups published on Wednesday, residents of the Hengda Oasis residential compound, located just west of the Foxconn plant, have complained of air pollution from the facility since 2009.

“The pollution now is very severe,” said a resident who gave his surname as Yang. “We have chest tightness, thirst, dizziness and nausea.”

China’s electronics industry has for years been favoured with financial incentives by policy makers seeking to move the manufacturing sector up the value chain. But environmentalists say electronics manufacturers are increasingly heavy polluters. Wednesday’s report, which accuses Apple of systemic pollution in its supply chain in China, is just the latest broadside.

Foxconn, as one of Apple’s most important suppliers, which assembles most iPhones and iPads and makes some key components, is one of the main targets. In Taiyuan, the acrid smell local residents found so unbearable came from the exhaust from a paint workshop and oil vapour from cutting parts.

“There has been no evidence to support any reports by residents near our facility in Taiyuan that the facility is polluting the air in that location and monitoring by the local government confirms that,” Foxconn told the Financial Times.

“However, a review by local officials did determine that our air quality system in that facility should be enhanced and we are in the process of installing new air quality control systems throughout that facility that will ensure we operate well above current air quality standard requirements,” the company said.

Foxconn has shut down some equipment until the new systems are in place. But much of the worst pollution is less obvious.

“The electronic industry doesn’t represent the stereotype of pollution, the black smog, the dirty discharge, the smokestack,” said Zhang Jianyu, head of the environmental defence fund in Beijing. “The discharges may pose significant health impact to humans but are not conventional pollutants,” Mr Zhang added.

Electronics components contain elements that are harmful to humans in large quantities, such as lead and cadmium, which can damage nervous systems. Etching, polishing and painting processes can release dangerous dust and chemicals including cyanide and arsenic.

In one of the highest-profile disasters this year, in May a Foxconn factory assembling iPads caught fire, killing three workers. Foxconn said a buildup of flammable dust in the air caused an explosion.

The long and complex supply chains behind electronics products can exacerbate the problem as suppliers further outsource production of their most polluting components.

“If you become a supplier to an international firm and you get compliance pressures, then you might be tempted to solve the problem by outsourcing the dirtiest parts of your manufacturing process,” said Laura Ediger, environmental manager at BSR, a consultancy.

Printed circuit boards, batteries, semiconductors and liquid crystal display screens are among the most polluting components to produce, according to Ms Ediger.

Another big issue is the treatment and disposal of waste generated during the manufacturing process. “Some manufacturers are not serious about their waste management,” said James Xue, a director at the environmental service division at SGS, the testing and inspections company.

Wednesday’s report cites the example of one large waste treatment station in Shenzhen that was found by the local government to be emitting pollutants several times the legal limit. The station services factories belonging to Foxconn and other global brands including Hitachi, Samsung, Siemens, Sanyo, IBM, Philips and Toshiba, according to its website.

Foxconn said it would investigate the matter. “If they are found to be in violation and cannot bring their operation into compliance, we will find a new vendor,” it said.

Earlier this year, Hong Fujin Precision Industry (Shenzhen), a Foxconn affiliate, was fined Rmb40,000 ($6,271) for phosphate concentration in its wastewater exceeding the figure given in their discharge permit.

Foxconn confirmed the fine and said the violation was a single incident caused by human error.

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