Electronic waste in China
Electronic waste in China is a serious environmental issue. The amount of electronic waste (e-waste) is increasing due to rising economies like China and India and a higher demand of electronic devices combined with a shorter economic lifespan in the Western world. Though e-waste from the Western world is responsible for a large portion of the e-waste, the biggest threat comes from other regions in the world like India, Thailand, and China itself. Roughly 70% of global e-waste ends up in China. As a result, China has to deal with the environmental damage and health problems related to the increasing amount of e-waste. Most of these problems arise from the fact that 60% of the e-waste is processed in informal recycling centres by unskilled ill-equipped manual labour.
China in 2011 was the world's second largest producer of electronic waste and produced 2.3 million tones. The amount is expected to increase as the Chinese economy grows. Large amounts of foreign electronic waste are also imported. Disposal of electronic waste can create jobs and recycle valuable metals but also harm humans and the environment by releasing pollutants. Legislation banning importation and requiring proper disposal of indigenous waste as well as a governmental subsides for proper disposal have recently been introduced but have been criticized as insufficient and susceptible to fraud. There have been local successes, such as the city of Tianjin where 38,000 tonnes were disposed of properly in 2010, but much electronic waste is improperly handled.
The main region where the e-waste is shipped to is the Guangdong province, situated along China's south east coast. From there it is spreading to other regions such as Zhejiang, Shanghai, Tianjin, Hunan, Fujian and Shandong. All of these regions are located along China's entire east coast. Guiyu in Guangdong Province is the location of the largest electronic waste site on earth.
Process of e-waste
In China there is a formal and a strong informal collecting system. The informal collection system called "cherry picking" utilizes only recyclable appliances and sells the reusable pieces to the local second-hand market. Concerning the formal sector there are some collecting projects put in place. Furthermore, the process of electric and electronic devices contains many toxic substances and because the processing of e-waste is being done by burning and heating to extract valuable material the health hazards are omnipresent. The toxics that are released during this process are very harmful to a person's health. Given that most of the recycling is done improperly and without the necessary safety precautions, e-waste is directly responsible for deteriorating health and environment in China's east coast.
Informal recycling generally uses primitive processes and does not have the appropriate facilities to safeguard environmental and human health. Nonetheless, it is a very profitable market in China thanks to low wages, high demand for used electronics, used parts and materials. The informal recycling method consists mainly of manual, unskilled labor and is inherently mobile. Therefore, regulations might not be as effective as intended. Moreover, this industry "feeds" thousands of families.
Attempts to control the informal sector
In the regions of Tianjin, Taicing, Ningbo, Taizhou and Zhangzhou, local recycling parks have been built in which informal laborers still work as manual recyclers, but then under production and pollution management. In Guiyu, a different solution was found. Here, the government promoted technical upgrade in the informal workshops by replacing coal-fired grills with electrical heaters when taking out components from circuit boards.
The problem has to be tackled top-down by government and UN-based regulations, like the Basel Convention, to control the processing and transporting of e-waste and to provide environmental and social justice. The United Nations (UN) Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal is the most far-reaching regulation that exists on a global scale to address e-waste. However, the lucrative business that is created by e-waste recycling is responsible for the undermining of this convention in areas where e-waste is transported to.
The Chinese government has taken actions as well. Initially there was a complete ban on improper recycling but this was quickly dropped. They have now issued a variety of environmental laws, regulations, standards, technical guidance and norms related to electronic product production and e-waste management. Nevertheless, laws and regulations put in place by the Chinese government lack of adequate resources to enforce them. Moreover, the financial windfall associated with e-waste makes these laws and regulations weak. In 2008, The Chinese State Council also approved a "draft regulation on the management of electronic waste." This regulation is intended to promote the continued use of resources through recycling and to monitor the end-of-life treatment of electronics. Under the new regulations, recycling of electronics by the consumer is mandated. It also requires the recycling of unnecessary materials discarded in the manufacturing process. The Management Regulations for Recycling and Disposing of Consumer Electronics and Electronic Waste, intended to be effective January 1, 2011, bans import of toxic e-waste, requires treatment of e-wastes to have license, and treatment plants to treat pollution. One of the most successful policies is probably the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). EPR makes manufacturers responsible for electronics collection and recycling. Therefore, the producer is more involved in the life cycle of a product.
Provincial Chinese programs
There are different examples in the region of Qingdao, Beijing and the Sichuan provinces, where the current projects are developed.
A big issue can be found in the Sichuan Province, close to the Tibetan border, where people had a habit of throwing waste in rivers and nature. Local leaders, among others monks and village representatives, decided to call for help from Norlha to design a region specific program. Monks have been informed about the proper way to dispose of (e-)waste, which they could pass through in religious celebrations. At the same time posters have been handed out to the communities and children have been informed by the NGO in their schools. Moreover, in 5 villages waste collections systems and storage points for e-waste have been created.
Another project is the "Home Appliance Old for New Rebate Program", which was first launched in nine cities and provinces who are considered as economically developed regions. It is a recycling system, where only accredited collectors who usually work in the retail industry can collect and take back old appliances from consumers and reward these actions with discount coupons. Since only authorized collectors were participating in the process, it gives the possibility to pay the consumers a higher price for their e-waste
Many companies, like Nintendo, are aware of the problem of e-waste and are developing their own initiatives. Companies joined forces by creating a collective e-waste reclamation campaign. But that does not solve the whole problem.
In response to low incentives some companies, like Dell, started to provide compensations to consumers in Beijing and Shanghai of US$0.15 for 1 kg of old computer. In order to receive the incentive consumers had to bring their used computers to local Dell stores at their own expense. The project failed because the financial gains of returning their computer to formal recyclers were lower than the gains from selling computers to informal collectors.
Even though legislation and regulations have been accepted by the developed countries against illegal exportation of e-waste, the high number of illegal shipments is contributing to the bad situation of e-waste in China. For instance, the members of the EU agreed not to transport any waste subject to the Basel Convention out of the EU or the OECD but illegal shipments are still rising in China and other developing countries. Greenpeace International claims that a large amount of e-waste is usually illegally shipped from Europe, the U.S. and Japan to China. One of the main incentives for them to export e-waste is that the cost of domestic e-waste disposal is higher than the exportation fees. Moreover, e-waste brokers make large profits from the trade and get paid twice: once for acquiring the e-waste, once for shipping it.
In China, informal collectors buy old electronic devices from consumers. The incentive to participate in collection systems, which cost them compared to informal recycling, is low, even though many Chinese consumers realize that it is important to recycle e-waste safely. As many as 90% of the consumers are reluctant to pay for e-waste recycling because there is still monetary value in the end-life of products.
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