A huge percentage of the world’s electrical and electronic equipment begins its life in China. What is less widely known is that China is also the end-of-life destination for much of the world’s waste electrical and electronic equipment, commonly known as “e-waste”. As both Chinese and worldwide consumption of electrical and electronic equipment have increased in recent years, so have the environmental and health consequences of its disposal. A new Green Paper titled “E-waste in China: A country report” published by the Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) Initiative explores and offers key insights into the scale and dynamics of the e-waste problem in China.
According to the report, the extent of the e-waste problem in China is staggering, and its sources are both domestic and foreign. In 2011, alone, 3.62 million tonnes of televisions, computers, refrigerators, mobile phones and air conditioners were discarded by Chinese consumers. Considering the rapid increase in consumption of electrical and electronic devices in China in recent years, along with a shortening of product life cycles, the amount of e-waste produced in China is expected to rise considerably in the years to come.
Staggering though these domestic e-waste numbers may be, they do not take into account the e-waste imported, both legally and illegally, into the country from North America, Europe and elsewhere in Asia. While the StEP Green Paper was unable to offer a precise estimate of the volume of this imported e-waste, it sheds important light on the legal, logistical and geographic loopholes through which these e-waste flows enter China. For example, vast amounts of e-waste from Europe, the US and elsewhere enter China through Hong Kong, which is exempt from many national policies and international agreements on the import of e-waste. A significant amount of e-waste also enters China illegally through its ports, as well as via overland routes through Vietnam. These illegal shipments of e-waste are often mixed with bulk steel or copper scrap, making them difficult to detect. Given the immense volume of shipments leaving and entering China every day, the report finds that the monitoring of all material flows is simply not possible and a large number of illegal e-waste shipments enter China undetected.
Central to the growing e-waste problem in China is the lack of suitable infrastructure to collect and process discarded equipment in a socially- and environmentally-sound manner. While state-led collection initiatives, pilot projects and infrastructure development have made important contributions in recent years, the report finds that the informal sector continues to play a major part in the collection and processing of e-waste and second-hand equipment. Unfortunately, this means that a large share of the e-waste in China is treated in a manner that threatens the health of workers, communities and the environment. The report concludes that, rather than attempting to bypass or eliminate the informal sector, effective policies must acknowledge its existence and seek to make informal processing safer and more environmentally-benign.
The authors identify a number of steps to address knowledge gaps and thus improve the effectiveness of e-waste policy and management in China, including: 1) conducting further research on the routes and mechanisms through which transboundary e-waste shipments enter China, as well as the volumes of these flows; 2) conducting further research on the volume and nature of e-waste flows within China, including the amount of electrical and electronic equipment put on the Chinese market and the amount of e-waste and second-hand equipment collected and processed by the formal and informal sectors; 3) developing a systematic assessment of current e-waste treatment conditions and industrial development, including exploring ways to improve the health and environmental conditions of informal e-waste processing; and, 4) ensuring the transfer of best technologies and practices related to critical e-waste collection, handling and treatment processes in order to significantly improve e-waste treatment capacity and performance in China.
This StEP Green Paper was developed under a framework grant-agreement on e-waste cooperation between the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the StEP Initiative, a multi-stakeholder e-waste initiative hosted by the United Nations University. Information and data sources for this report include published national statistics and reports, research papers, project documents and expert interviews. It is the aim of StEP and the report’s authors, led by Feng Wang, to use this report to facilitate communication and further discussion on policies, projects, and collaborations between various stakeholders to address the growing e-waste problem in China.
The StEP Green Paper “E-waste in China: A country report” may be downloaded here.