China’s E-Waste Cities Polluted and Left Behind

This article is in continuation of our previous blog post on the state of e-waste management in China.

In our previous article, we highlighted a disconnect between China’s formal and informal recycling channels, as well as areas of potential growth for both e-waste innovators and Chinese officials:

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.

In order to better understand these two unmet needs, let’s look at the informal recycling process in China and its e-waste cities.

INTRO TO E-WASTE

When you throw out an iPhone, TV, fridge, or other tech product, it either ends up in a formal recycling facility, in a landfill, or in the hands of an informal recycler in one of China’s e-waste cities. In the first case, the e-waste is properly treated, and an officially licensed recycler minimizes environmental damage when breaking down the product. In the second case, the e-waste misses both formal and informal recycling tracks, and instead ends up buried in a mass landfill where it has the potential to start major fires or leak chemical byproducts into soil.

China's E-Waste Cities - Collective Responsibility
Photo Credit: Greenpeace East Asia

The last disposal option – informal recycling – has a subtler, but perhaps more dangerous effect on local environments. Informal recyclers don’t have access to proper recycling equipment and aren’t officially regulated by waste management agencies like China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. They exist entirely outside of environmental law, and are mostly interested in extracting valuable metal like copper, gold, palladium, and silver.

DANGERS OF EXTRACTION

The most common methods for extraction include: physical dismantling with hammers or chisels, intense application of heat, or acid-baths, each of which causes lasting damage to both the recycler and the recycler’s surroundings.

The first method, physical dismantling, produces the fewest toxic byproducts. After dismantling e-waste, informal recyclers are left with potentially valuable metal and plastic, along with unwanted garbage. E-waste byproducts with no value are either discarded in a landfill or incinerated, causing similar problems as buried e-waste in landfills (such as unmanageable fires, toxic fumes, and slow decomposition).

The other two methods of extraction – intense heating and acid baths – carry serious health risks for the informal recycler and local residents. Intense heating involves a direct release of toxic chemicals into residential areas, while baths involve a direct disposal of acid and unwanted metals into local soil and water sources. This means that dangerous pollutants are not contained, but rather, are released into residential communities and continue to contaminate local air, water sources, and soil long after informal sites are shut down.

China's E-Waste Cities - Collective Responsibility
Photo Credit: Ewaste Guide

Occupational health researchers have found that residents from informal recycling areas have higher likelihoods of developing respiratory problems, brain damage, deficient central nervous systems, and lead poisoning.

QUESTIONS GOING FORWARD

This is just an introduction to the gap in China’s e-waste cities and overall waste management. Further research should delve deeper and consider possible strategies to tackle the informal recycling sector. These critical questions remain:

  • First and foremost, how can Chinese legislators improve RAW legislation to co-opt informal recyclers?
  • How can they incentivize small workshops to cooperate with large-scale licensed recyclers?
  • Finally, once local police departments have shut down informal recycling centers like Guiyu, how can they correct for lasting environmental damage?

What are your thoughts?

We at Collective are currently conducting further research with China’s informal recyclers to find further insights into this rising issue. Follow Collective on social media to stay in the loop on our project and share your impressions, comments, and solutions on this topic!


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

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7 Responses to China’s E-Waste Cities Polluted and Left Behind

  1. The overall description of this article on PRC’s situation of e-waste management or lack of management is fairly accurate. Some of the information as illustrated in the pictures, such as open burning, was a informal and illegal act of the unauthorized people back in early 2000’s. It is not certain whether this unlawful burning or acid washing still exist widely in China, as the PRC Government has tried hard to crack down those uncalled for criminal-like operations. To correct the wrongs may not be that easy in China, as there are only a limited number of permits issued to formal recycling facilities who are controlling the e-waste recycling market. It would be better to re-examine the demand and supply sides of China’s market by regions, and set up corresponding collection, recycling and treatment systems nation wide, via a government-recycling industry-community partnership, .The current formal e-waste management or recycling systems do not seem to be adequate to tackle the ever increasing quantity of the e-waste generated every year in China.

  2. Vincent – you make some really good points. There isn’t a lot of data out there about the number of unregulated e-waste centers in China still in operation, so it is difficult to see how much progress has been made in shutting down those informal facilities over the last 10-15 years. I think in my blog post I try to acknowledge some government progress in shutting down informal centers, but point out two lingering problems: 1) an informal system that still exists, and is not subject to environmental regulations; and 2) the existence of cities like Guiyu that are well-documented, and clearly no longer e-waste processing hubs, but still suffer long-term damage from former e-waste treatments like acid baths and unlawful burning. I would love to hear your thoughts on the second problem – what to do about cities like Guiyu, whose drinking water and air quality are still low even after e-waste processing has ended in the area.

    I also want to address your second point – attacking the informal system by strengthening the formal one. What do you think an effective government-recycling industry-community partnership would look like? Would it incorporate informal collectors, but subject them to government oversight? Would government officials control where informal collectors could send e-waste? (i.e. To officially regulated and approved processing centers?) How would you incentivize consumers to participate in this formal scheme on a large scale? With something like tax rebates or money back if they recycle their iphones/computers?

    Thanks again for your comment! Really interesting.

    • Alison, your queries are valid and to the point. E-waste and pollution problems in China are not something one can openly and freely talk about. I have tried to touch upon such issues with a former doctoral student of mine who works in PRC, but he is not ready to address the environmental governance subject at this moment, as this is a very sensitive topic in China.

      As one could expect, the contaminated site clean-up job is quite tough in China, as the regulation is not rigorous or non-existing. It begs the question who should pay for the massive undertaking to ensure the site and groundwater etc. is clean, and to which standard. The Chinese Academy of Science has commissioned some research work in this area. The academic effort, however, needs a strong support of an economic-driven government to put the research results into action.

      As for the waste management partnership, it would be better to set up a system for the collectors, recycling industries, central funding agency and local government to work together, to make it into a people’s project, similar to the green-dot system in Germany. The key factor, again, is the central government’s political will to embark on such a nation-wide comprehensive program.

    • Alison, I sent out a reply to you a minute ago, but cannot find or retrieve it now. Please let me know whether you have received it.

  3. You a raise a good point – no progress is possible without the central government’s political will. I wonder, then, what would actually motivate the central government to take action and push for two ideal outcomes: 1) a national framework for waste collection that includes informal collectors, local governments, and approved recycling plants; and 2) a more rigorous clean-up effort in former e-waste hubs. You mentioned that the Chinese Academy of Science is conducting research on site contamination, but I wonder if their results will actually provide policy recommendations. Do you know the scope of their study, and how long they will likely conduct it?

    If academic research is one way to influence the central government, I wonder what other channels we can consider. Media attention has produced mixed results. Guiyu, for example, has already received extensive foreign coverage for about 15 years, starting with the Basel Action Network in 2001, but has experienced limited progress. Greenpeace and the United Nations Environment Program have also applied pressure to local and central authorities, but failed to inspire long-term clean-up strategies. Perhaps pressure needs to come from inside China, and not from the UN or a foreign NGO. Would a comprehensive Chinese documentary like “Under the Dome” draw national attention to the issue? Apart from media coverage, what other channels can we consider to pressure local and central governments?

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