A constant stream of high-tech exports are driving China’s record trade surplus. But a reverse flow of high-tech trash, dumping obsolete electronics in the very cities that manufactures them, is plaguing the mainland.
Now it turns out that China’s red-hot manufacturing engine could hold the key to the mounting e-waste problem.
A United Nations group, StEP – “Solving the E-waste Problem” – has a project that turns the tables on big industry. It wants China’s workers to man “disassembly” lines to recycle e-waste.
“The opportunity of having relatively cheap labor in China is that you get much better separation by hand than any modern machine [can provide],” said Jaco Huisman, who is coordinating StEP’s China project. “What we [will] have is the same conditions to do the reverse thing of an assembly line – we will take everything apart again.”
In need of a cure
China needs an e-waste solution badly. Most of the world’s estimated 40 million annual tons of e-waste – production scrap and discarded appliances – ends up illegally dumped in China. Domestic e-waste is also rising rapidly. The Chinese already trash 40 million personal computers every year, according to the UN.
Guiyu, in Guangdong province, is the best-known e-waste dumping ground. It receives several million tons of smuggled e-waste a year, mainly from North America and Europe.
A “backyard recycling” industry has grown in Guiyu. Some 80% of the 132,000 villagers are now involved in e-waste. They extract metals like gold and copper, and repair components to sell to factories. But lack of expertise means valuable materials are crudely extracted, often releasing pollutants in the process.
“Usually [villagers] use poor technology, like open burning. After that the waste is dumped into the river,” said Lai Yun, a Greenpeace activist who has visited Guiyu numerous times. “The local river is now polluted. Even the groundwater has been polluted, so local people have to buy drinking water from another town.”
A 2003 study by Shantou University Medical College found that 81.8% of Guiyu’s children had “significantly higher” levels of lead in their blood. Exposure to lead – commonly used in computer monitors, soldering and circuit boards – can cause chronic damage to the nervous and reproductive systems. But processing e-waste is so profitable that Guiyu’s people carry on regardless.
“For a small village, all the buildings in Guiyu look very rich,” Lai said. “The villagers don’t want to stop e-waste [dumping].”
This is where StEP’s “Best of Two Worlds” project comes in. It hopes to create an e-waste recycling model for China that will use better economics to render backyard recycling obsolete.
According to Christian Hagelueken, of StEP’s recycling partner Umicore, a good recycler can get precious metal yields that top 90%, while backyard operations typically achieve 20% yields.
The first stage will use China’s large, relatively cheap workforce to dismantle and sort e-waste. Workers on these disassembly lines would enjoy health and safety protection, while toxic waste would be properly disposed of.
Simple components from the sorted waste would be recycled locally. Complex parts, which can’t be efficiently processed in China, would be sent overseas. Precious metals, like gold and silver extracted from circuit boards, would either be bought by the recycler or returned to China.
StEP is partnering electronics conglomerate Philips Electronics and German precious metals recycler Umicore to test this model. It will start preprocessing work at a plant near Shanghai owned by a Chinese partner, Taizhou Chiho Tiande, in October. Next year, it will increase its capacity, taking in scrap from Phillips.
Even if large-scale disassembly takes off for StEP, it is unlikely to translate into a new outsourcing industry for China.
“[Outsourcing preprocessed waste] only works if you can be sure that it’s done in the right way. In China and India at the moment it’s far from being controlled,” Hagelueken said.
This lack of control is exemplified by the illegal e-waste trade. Although China has ratified international laws and implemented domestic regulations banning e-waste imports, conditions in villages like Guiyu have only worsened.
“China has strict regulations on e-waste imports, but there’s still a large amount of smuggling,” said Nie Yongfeng, an environment professor at Tsinghua University.
The global economy makes e-waste smuggling difficult to pin down. Electronic scrap is collected by municipal agencies and collection companies which sell the scrap to brokers who promise to dispose of it properly. This scrap is passed along a daisy chain of other brokers before ending in countries like China.
Even if illegal imports are stopped, the threat of rising domestic e-waste looms.
Blame for the problem, like the waste itself, is being passed around globally. Greenpeace is pressuring manufacturers like Apple to improve their design and manufacturing. Academics like Nie say developed countries are not regulating their waste properly. Chinese officials are blamed for not enforcing regulations. Everyone, it seems, is culpable.
“These products are designed on a global supply chain; some parts are designed in one part of the world and assembled in another,” said Ruediger Kuehr, StEP’s executive secretary. “It’s really a global problem, so finally there must be a global solution.”