New Energy and Environment Digest 新能源与环保参考

UNEP Report Urges E-Waste Action, Focuses on China

Posted in Electronic Waste, Recycling, Sustainability, Waste Management by ebalkan on February 26, 2010

A new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report – Recycling – from E-waste to Resources (pdf) –  identifies the growing problem of e-waste internationally. Includes is the finding that, by 2020, computer related e-waste will be four times 2007 levels. More noteworthy still, is that developing countries – namely, India and China – will be the largest depositories for e-waste.

Whereas previous streams of e-waste originated from abroad, often imported under dubious conditions, the growing trend in China is domestically-generated e-waste, as NEEDigest has reported previously. This pattern matches with growing personal wealth and availability of cheap electronic goods and appliances: two factors combining to produce a culture of disposibility previously absent in China.

In the short-term, government policies may be exacerbating this trend. A small appliance-aimed “cash for clunkers”-type program launched in the fall has reportedly resulted in the disposal – and collection – of 2.39 million used home appliances, including televisions, PCs, refrigerators, washing machines, and air-conditioners within only a few months. But, as the UN report alludes and Shanghai Scrap’s Adam Minter has correctly pointed out, “China doesn’t yet have sufficient environmentally-secure capacity for recycling such a large quantity of used appliances.”

But, before we dive into that, let’s get back to the UN report.

Quantifying and qualifying the impact of e-waste on China

The report identifies China as the now second largest producer of e-waste. With an estimated 2.3 million tons of e-waste generated each year, China trails the US by only 0.7 million tons annually. These figures are, as admitted in the report, simply best guesses. Exact e-waste numbers are particularly hard to identify, given the extent of e-waste treatment that is conducted informally, and therefore outside official statistical channels.

The informal e-waste sector does not only weaken statistical efforts, though.

As UNEP’s Executive Director Achim Steiner warned in the report’s launch press conference “Developing countries will also face rising environmental damage and health problems if e-waste recycling is left to vagaries of informal sector.”

In China, most electronic waste management is conducted informally, by “trash armies” that manually collect, sort and recycle trash. Many electronics contain hazardous substances which, when treated in “backyard recycling” facilities with open sky incineration, cyanide leaching, and “cooking” of circuit boards, have deleterious effects on personal health, local soil and water supplies.

Pilot “take-back” programs that have been introduced by some Chinese cities, wherein individuals are paid to turn in their used e-waste to sanctioned collections sites, have faltered due to the fact that the assessment price for end-of-life goods is below the market value individuals can get from informal collectors. At the same time, state-of-the-art privately-run e-waste recycling facilities – where the government would like to see e-waste end up – are unable to compete without government subsidization, because the operational costs of their machinery exceeds the value of their output.

Despite these conditions, there is a silver lining yet. As Steiner pointed out earlier this week, boosting recycling rates can be a path to job growth, while cutting greenhouse gas emissions and conserving valuable resources. But only if manual processing is treated as a comparable advantage in China and other developing countries, and regulated in a way that minimizes damages to workers’ health and the local environment.

This goal, though not out of reach, is a formidable one for China.

Seeking an e-waste solution in China

China has well- established formal and informal e-waste sectors, often dependent upon one another. Viewed alone, this appears an encouraging condition for improving e-waste management. Furthermore, the presence of low cost labor in China is of great potential benefit, since much of e-waste handling – including processes that meet stringent EHS standards – is time-intensive.

However, as per the report’s findings, China’s formal sector interfaces very little with the informal sector. To make progress in e-waste management, China will need to seek an integrated approach, building processing capacity in the informal sector and incorporating it more meaningfully into the formal sector. This will require more than technology transfer and development –  which is often regarded as a cure-all in China – namely, market intervention and recognition of the informal sector.

Next, while the new report by and large promotes localization of e-waste management, it includes a specific recommendation to ship e-waste abroad for processing in cases where there is no local best available technologies (BAT) processes. NEEDigest has often heard this compelling solution echoed by recycling professionals. In China, however, the presence of considerable practical and political obstacles begs a degree of skepticism in the implementability of this recommendation.

Thus, while “close interaction and communication among the participants/stakeholders in the recycling chain” offers a right path towards achieving efficient and safe e-waste treatment globally, and in China, we should not soon expect to see the e-waste industry brought out from the shadows any time soon.

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