Toxic Trade News / 4 May 2006
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China's E-Waste Problem: Facing Up to the Challenge
by Yingling Liu, Worldwatch Institute (DC)
4 May 2006 – In recent years, environmentalists in China and elsewhere have expressed rising concern about the large quantities of electronic waste (“e-waste”) that wealthy countries continue to dump in the developing world, particularly in Asia. At a forum on e-waste recycling in Beijing last week, participants explored ways to address this daunting problem in a more realistic and pragmatic way.

While it is difficult to estimate how many discarded computers, mobile phones, and other electronics flood into mainland China each year, a 2002 report from the Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition estimated that 80 percent of the world’s high-tech trash is exported to Asia, and 90 percent of this flows into China. Most of it ends up at family recycling workshops, where laborers disassemble the electronics manually for reclaimable materials. Wearing little protective gear, they are exposed to heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury, and to toxic compounds such as acids, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs, common flame retardants).

To stem the negative effects of this activity, China banned the import of e-waste in 2000. However, the labor-intensive nature of electronics recycling has perpetuated a black market in the trade, taking advantage of China’s abundant, cheap, and skilled labor force. Much of the discarded equipment is shipped to Hong Kong in containers labeled “for recycling,” then smuggled overland to several “recycling towns” in adjacent Guangdong Province, and to areas further inland. E-waste recycling can generate huge profits for local governments, so authorities often turn a blind eye to the practice, which serves as passive encouragement to its spread.

At the Beijing workshop, experts predicted that the e-waste problem will be exacerbated by new external factors, including recent laws regulating electronics manufacture in Europe and elsewhere. “With the implementation of the European Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), quantities of obsolete e-waste will increase, and the costs for recycling will rise as well. This will probably fan e-waste smuggling to China,” said Zhai Yong, an official with the Environmental Protection & Resources Conservation Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament. The EU Directive, which entered into force in August 2005, holds producers responsible for financing the collection, treatment, recovery, and environmentally sound disposal of waste electronics.

The domestic picture is bleak as well, as Chinese demand for electronics and electrical equipment surges. According to Xinhua News Agency, China has generated roughly 1.1 million tons of e-waste annually since 2003, including 5 million TV sets, 4 million refrigerators, 5 million washing machines, 5 million computers, and tens of millions of mobile phones. And it will continue to pile up: Greenpeace estimates that by 2010, there will be 178 million new computer users in China alone.

Despite the potential environmental damage caused by electronic trash, experts believe it can also be a significant source of recycled material to alleviate the country’s tight natural resource constraints. “Discarded home appliances contain large quantities of reclaimable metals, glasses, and other materials. If properly treated, its recycling value could not be underestimated,” said Ma Dejun, Vice President of China Home Electronics Appliances Research Institute (CHEARI).

According to statistics from CHEARI, steel comprises 49 percent of a refrigerator, 52 percent of a washing machine, and 12 percent of a television set, while copper comprises 4 percent, 2 percent, and 3 percent of these items, respectively. Computers are highly recyclable as well, with 90 percent of the average machine made of reclaimable copper, aluminum, iron, steel, and plastics.

A closer look at some of China’s e-waste disasters reveals that commonly used recycling practices can harm the environment more than the waste itself. Investigations by Greenpeace found that workers often use acid baths to dissolve the lead, silver, and other metals contained in the electronics, washing the residues directly into nearby rivers and other water bodies. Components that cannot be recycled are sent to landfills or burned in the open, releasing additional toxins into the environment.

But “China’s problem cannot be solved by only purchasing a few sets of fancy recycling machines from developed countries,” says Li Jinhui, Professor with Department of Environmental Science & Engineering at Tsinghua University. Lacking in advanced technology yet rich in labor, China should develop a path for e-waste recycling that is suitable to its current situation, Li believes. “The most important thing at present is to guarantee the safety of the disassembly and treatment process, while taking full consideration of the environment and workers’ health.” Such reform, however, would require an overhaul of the country’s labor rights structure, as well as greater enforcement of environmental regulations.

Chinese electronics producers may soon be forced to share some of the burden as well. According to CHEARI’s Ma Dejun, the most urgent challenge domestic manufacturers face is to use “greener” design. In February, seven government departments and administrations jointly issued the Administration on the Control of Pollution Caused by Electronic Information Products, slated to take effect on March 1, 2007. Similar to the EU regulation restricting the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment (the so-called RoHS Directive), the Chinese ruling will gradually phase out the use of several hazardous materials, including lead, mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium, in electronic products.

Though China does not yet have comprehensive legislation on electronics manufacture and disposal, the National People’s Congress is considering measures to prevent pollution from discarded e-waste. “The legislative process embodies two considerations: one is to encourage the recycling and reuse of resources, and the other is environmental protection,” said official Zhai Yong. “A clear principle is that sending e-waste to landfills or incinerators will be strictly prohibited.” Such leadership at the highest levels of government points to a growing effort to address this problem in a pragmatic and effective way.

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