Toxic Trade News / 21 December 2006
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China Becomes Prime Global Victim of "E-waste"
by Yun Feng, Worldwatch Institute
21 December 2006 – In Dongguan City in China’s southern Guangdong Province, you can buy a computer laptop for US$100. If you’ve got $200 in your wallet, you can acquire a second large machine, like a copier or fax. Yet even though products “made in China” are known for their low prices, the cheapest high-tech commodities here aren’t locally made. They actually come from the United States, Europe, and Japan, and are imported electronic waste, or “e-waste.”

Hong Yuan is a notorious e-waste market in Dongguan, with its long alleys of two-story shops frequented by swarms of people, indicating a bustling business. The doorways to many shops are lined with neat rows of television sets, next to which lie piles of discarded electronics components and equipment cases. Inside the store is a work floor, where old TV sets from overseas are taken apart, reassembled with replacement parts, and then readied for sale as “new” TVs. The price for such a finished set ranges from US$40–60.

Across China, consumers are buying and using computers, copiers, TVs, and fax machines “produced” here. And e-waste markets are expanding to major cities nationwide, including the country’s capital, Beijing. China has clearly become the biggest dumping site in the world for global e-waste.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, a total of 20–50 million tons of electrical and electronics equipment waste is generated annually worldwide, and this is growing at a rate of 3 to 5 percent each year. Technical innovations have shortened the life span and accelerated the replacement of such equipment, leading to the incremental accumulation of electronic waste.

The current annual production of e-waste is 1.8 million tons in Germany, 1.5 million tons in France, and roughly 6 million tons in Europe. Japan discards 18 million home electronic appliances annually, amounting to 600,000 tons of e-waste, including 100,000 tons of various metal works. Each year in China, around 15 million large home appliances such as TVs and air conditioners become obsolete, and millions of cell phones are discarded.

A 2002 report from the Basel Action Network and the 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. Research also reveals that about 40 percent of e-waste from Britain is processed overseas, and the major processors are China and India.

E-waste has taken a serious toll on people’s health. Shantou University in Guangdong Province conducted research at an electronics dismantling site in Guiyu Town and found that all 165 children surveyed between the ages of 1 and 6 years had high lead content in their blood, while 135 of them suffered from lead poisoning, contributing to varying degrees of brain damage.

In an effort to control e-waste pollution, in February 2006 the Chinese government enacted a new “Administration on the Control of Pollution Caused by Electronic Information Products.” Effective on March 1 of next year, the law, the equivalent of the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive in the European Union, will increase production costs for Chinese electronic manufacturers by an estimated 10 percent. The potential financial loss to these enterprises could pose a major challenge to the law’s enforcement. Meanwhile, Chinese supervision of e-waste imports has been chronically weak, and the illegal trade in electronic garbage remains rampant. These two factors render China the world’s No. 1 e-waste dumping site.

Yun Feng is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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