China’s E-Waste Problem Far From Resolved

On August 26, Collective Responsibility released a blog post about innovative e-waste processors. We highlighted the Japanese Olympic Committee and its use of old cell-phones and tech to create Olympic medals, as well as TES-AMM Shanghai, which accepts and processes e-waste.

On a larger scale, a few industry leaders have gone the extra mile to improve East Asia’s formal recycling processes. Huawei – an international telecom giant and Apple competitor – has become a sustainability leader just within the last two years. The tech company has led initiatives in China and over 144 other countries, with projects ranging from a new global supply chain standard, to a smartphone-recycling program, to waste reduction initiatives.

Each of these organizations – Japan’s Olympic Committee, TES-AMM Shanghai, and Huawei – are pushing consumers and companies in the right direction. All have incentivized consumers to return unwanted electronic products to trusted recyclers, and Huawei in particular has encouraged companies to hold their supply chain to high recycling standards.

After four or five years of reform, though, China is still dominated by informal recyclers.

Informal Recycler Melting E-Waste - Collective Responsibility
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Lau/IPS

THE DISCONNECT

To provide some context, Huawei began working on its global supply chain standard in 2010 and 2011. Meanwhile, China officially passed the Regulations for the Administration of the Recovery and Disposal of Waste Electrical and Electronic Products (RAW) in 2011. During that same year, RAW also received funding from tech producers to subsidize qualified recyclers.

Since 2010, however, China has consistently been one of the top two global producers of e-waste and has failed to address lasting damage from informal recycling. In 2014, the UN released a startling global statistic: Of the 41.8 million tons of refrigerators, cell-phones, computers, and unwanted tech generated worldwide in 2014 (mostly by the U.S. and China), only 6 million tons were recycled by licensed facilities.

Chinese officials have since made an effort to close informal recycling hubs, but have only attacked the problem at the surface level. Local police forces have closed informal recycling workshops and cleared entire cities that were once devoted to informal recycling, yet they have done nothing to address the lasting health and environmental damage to these cities. The town of Guiyu – which once contained over 5000 e-waste workshops – is probably the most infamous example of these persisting consequences. Though its informal recyclers have been virtually eliminated, its residents still suffer from long-term health issues like lead poisoning.

AREAS TO IMPROVE IN E-WASTE

If the Chinese government wants to encourage a more dominant formal recycling system, it will require not only a top-down, supply-chain approach, but also a more extensive grassroots approach. Legislators and local officials specifically need to tackle two gaps:

  1. Insufficient repair-work and damage-control in informal recycling hubs like Guiyu, and
  2. A lack of bottom-up incentive for informal recyclers to leave their trade and cooperate with formal recycling agencies.

This is Part One of Collective’s series on Waste Management. You can read Part Two here. Follow Collective on social media to stay in the loop and receive updates when new blog articles are released.


This article was written by Alison Schonberg, Research Analyst at Collective Responsibility.

Featured Image Credit: Chris Jordan

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