Economics thwarts China’s efforts to curb electronic waste

A thriving but environmentally hazardous informal sector hinders China's efforts to regulate the control and treatment of unwanted electrical items 

China has improved its collection and treatment of electronic waste in recent years but informal recycling of unwanted appliances and gadgets continues to pose serious harm to the environment, says a new report.

"Due to a range of social and economic factors, the informal sector continues to play a major role in the collection and recycling of e-waste, and informal recycling often leads to detrimental effects on the environment and the health and safety of workers and local communities," said the study, which was carried out by the Germany-based United Nations University.

Without proper facilities, the removal of copper, lead, plastics and valuable components pollutes local air, soil and water, widening the health impacts of a sector that is already hugely hazardous to those who strip out valuable contents from discarded electrical items.

Guiyu, a cluster of towns in China’s southern province of Guangdong, is one of the world’s largest centres for e-waste, where an estimated 60,000 workers are involved in workshop-style methods to open up electrical goods – often using their bare hands – the "cooking" of circuit boards, and the use of corrosive and dangerous chemicals to extract metals such as gold and copper.

Although China has introduced new laws in the past five years to encourage the collection of electronic items and processing in centralised waste management sites (such as the ‘old for new’ subsidy programme) unregulated family-run operations like those in Guiyu often offer more money for e-waste than municipalities, says Feng Wang, one of the co-authors of the report, in an interview with chinadialogue

"The regulated e-waste sector in China is going to have to find smarter ways to compete with the scrap dealers and the small workshops," Wang adds.

In some instances, green-minded entrepreneurs have stepped in where regulation was lacking, such as the collection of used or unwanted mobile phones

China’s economic growth and increasing prosperity – mainly concentrated in urban areas – has also filtered through to rural districts, where the environmental impact of discarded items is often more noticeable.

In these areas electrical items are increasingly affordable, meaning e-waste volumes are likely to rise sharply, but many rural districts aren’t well placed to collect and recycle items such as televisions, mobile phones and household appliances, says Wang.   

In 2011 alone, Chinese consumers bought 57 million televisions, 58 fridges, 53 million washing machines, 95 million air conditioners and 74 million computers, along with 250 million mobile phones, according to a previous UN University report.

The same year, 1.2 million tonnes of televisions, 0.44 million tonnes of fridges, 0.32 million tonnes of washing machines, 0.99 million tonnes of air conditioners and 0.67 million tonnes of computers were discarded, accounting for most of China’s e-waste that year.
According to the UN report released over the weekend, China produced 6 million tonnes of e-waste in 2014, which was 15% of the global total and second only to the US, which generated over 7 million tonnes.

China officially collected and treated around 1.3 million tonnes of five types of e-waste, 28% of the total, the report said, lower than Europe (40%) but far head of the US, which had a rate of only 15%.

China’s e-waste could end up in Africa

Many unwanted electrical goods are shipped from the US to China and Africa, and clear data at federal level on safe recycling of e-waste is lacking, the UN report says.  

Increasingly much of the world’s e-waste that would previously gone to China is going to West Africa instead, where the processing of discarded items is cheaper, says Wang.

“The danger for Africa is that China may join the US as a big exporter of e-waste, and countries such as Ghana and Nigeria become even bigger dumping grounds for environmentally harmful substances in the way that China has been since the 1990s,” he adds.