Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines

E-Waste Hits China

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Jul 21 2011 (IPS) - Despite new government regulations, China, for decades the dumping ground for the world’s electronic waste, still struggles to treat and process millions of tonnes of e-waste, prompting health and environmental concerns.

China, where sales of electronic devices are surging, generates as much as 2.3 million tonnes of electronic waste domestically each year, according to a report last year by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). That’s second only to the United States, which produces three million tonnes annually. Much of that waste ends up in China, where imports of e-waste are banned but largely tolerated.

Despite improvements to treatment facilities in recent years, China still lacks large numbers of high- tech recycling facilities and relies instead on environmentally damaging methods of disposal. Some e- waste is burned and large amounts of hazardous material are abandoned without treatment, according to a report by China Environment News.

“China still hasn’t established a proper e-waste management and recycling system,” Peng Ping’an, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry tells IPS. “Large quantities of e-waste are buried directly or dismantled by small, unlicensed plants with bare hands.”

The waste keeps piling up. Roughly 3.5 million tons of electronic waste is expected to be produced in 2011, according to a report by China Construction News, under the Ministry of Housing and Urban- Rural Development.

The UN report said that by 2020, e-waste from old computers is expected jump by 400 percent from 2007 levels in China, while discarded mobile phones will be seven times higher.

The government has begun to tackle the issue. On Jan. 1, 2011, the State Council issued new regulations to deal with the recovery and disposal of electronic waste. Under the new regulations the government agreed to establish a treatment fund for e-waste, which will be used to grant subsidies for the recovery and disposal of electronic products.

But legislation covering the treatment, disposal and recycling of e-waste is still in its infancy, and the current laws remain inadequate, Peng tells IPS. As a result, e-waste treatment remains profit-driven, scattered and disorganised.

There are about 100 companies and institutes engaged in e-waste recovery and disposal in China. They suffer from a lack of policy support and inefficient treatment facilities, Peng says.

Last year’s UN report called on developing countries to improve recycling facilities. Boosting developing countries’ e-waste recycling programmes can have the added benefit of creating jobs, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and recovering a wide range of valuable metals, including silver, gold, palladium, copper and indium, the report said.

There have been some successes. In Tianjin, a coastal city near Beijing, the municipal environmental bureau estimated that around four million television sets, refrigerators, computers, washing machines and air conditioners were scrapped in 2010, making up 38,000 tons of electronic waste, according to People’s Daily.

About 90 percent of that waste reached private businesses for recycling. And there is room for much more. Green Angel, a recycling centre under the auspices of the Tianjin government recycled 70,000 household appliances last year, well short of its treatment capacity of 200,000 units a year.

Improper handling of e-waste can impact human health and the environment. Heavy metals, including lead, tin and barium, can contaminate underground and surface water, and electrical wires are sometimes burnt in open air in order to get to the copper inside, spreading carcinogens into the air.

Foreign countries began dumping e-waste on China in the 1990s, creating both opportunities and problems. While profits were to be made from handling e-waste, China lacked regulations and adequate treatment facilities. Toxic substances were discharged directly into the soil and water without proper treatment.

One town, Guiyu, in southern China’s Guangdong province, is home to the world’s highest recorded levels of dioxin – environmental pollutants that threaten human health – which are released into the air by burning plastics and circuit boards to extract metals, according to a 2007 report by the China Academy of Sciences.

The government has tried to bolster the e-waste recycling industry by offering incentives to people to trade in old appliances for new ones. People can sell old products to home appliance stores such as Gome and Dazhong, which go on to sell them to treatment centres at a discount.

Some people take advantage of this system, however, buying cheap appliances from unlicensed plants that have already “treated” them by removing important components such as copper, glass and gold. Once these appliances reach legitimate treatment centres, they are worthless.

“In meetings we’ve had with our competitors, we’ve found they all have the same problem,” Lou Yi, who operates Taiding (Tianjin) Environmentally Friendly Science and Technology Corp., an e-waste recycling company, tells IPS.

Still, the trade-in scheme is essential to the survival of companies like Lou’s. “We will go bankrupt if the central government abolishes the policy.”

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