- Guiyu, China breaks down much of the world’s discarded electronics, slowly poisoning itself in the process. Photographs by Chien-min Chung / Reportage by Getty. – Jacqueline Nivard
As one of the world’s largest exporters of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and importers of waste electrical and electronic equipment (e-waste) worldwide, China plays a key role in the social, economic, environmental and material life cycle of much of the world’s electrical and electronic equipment. As a result of increased Chinese and worldwide consumption and turnover of EEE, China is now facing serious e-waste problems from both growing domestic generation and foreign imports. This report presents a comprehensive review of the extant e-waste problems, e-waste flows, the state of the informal and formal e-waste collection and recycling sectors, legislative progress and various stakeholders related to e-waste issues in China. Information and data sources include published national statistics, reports, research papers, project documents and expert interviews.This report has been developed under the framework grant-agreement on e-waste cooperation between the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and the Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) Initiative hosted by the United Nations University (UNU). The goal of this report is to enable better understanding of the e-waste system in China, including actors, projects, policies and other factors, and to facilitate further discussion, project initiation and communication among organizations working on e-waste in China.
Chapter 2 of this report provides an overview of the quantities of major EEE put on the Chinese market and the estimated accumulation of EEE in households over time, as well as the amount of e-waste generated in China and the transboundary flows of e-waste into China. Between 1995 and 2011, the sales of the five major types of home appliances increased exponentially. In 2011 alone, 56.6 million televisions, 58.1 million refrigerators, 53.0 million washing machines, 94.8 million air conditioners and 73.9 million computers were sold in the formal market of China, along with 250 million mobile phones. Also in 2011, an estimated 1.2 million tonnes of televisions, 0.44 million tonnes of refrigerators, 0.32 million tonnes of washing machines, 0.99 million tonnes of air conditioners and 0.67 million tonnes of computers were discarded. Collectively, these five types of discarded products amounted to 3.62 million tonnes of waste in 2011. In addition to the increasing volumes of e-waste generated domestically, China is also the recipient of transboundary shipments of e-waste. The exact volumes of these import streams are difficult to quantify; however, multiple loopholes through which these transboundary e-waste flows enter China have been identified and will be discussed in this chapter.
Chapters 3 and 4 present a brief evaluation for the e-waste collection and recycling systems in China, with separate overviews of the informal and formal sectors. As of 2007, it was estimated that around 0.44 million people were engaged in informal e-waste collection, and around 0.25 million people were engaged in informal e-waste recycling. Informal recycling focuses on extracting re-use and scrap values from e-waste without environmental protection measures, emissions controls or measures to protect the health and safety of workers. Consequently, such activities have caused serious damage to local environments and the health of workers in locations such as Guiyu in Guangdong Province and Taizhou in Zhejiang Province. In contrast to the large volumes of e-waste processed in the informal sector, formal collection and recycling in China are so far limited in size and capacity. However, thanks to the “Home Appliance Old for New Rebate Program” that ran from 2009-2011 and national e-waste legislation enacted since 2011, the formal sector has shown significant growth. As a result, around 61 million major home appliances were collected and treated by the formal sector in 2011. However, the recycling capacity of the informal sector and the amount of illegally imported and treated e-waste are still not clear due to data scarcity.
Chapter 5 summarizes legislative developments related to e-waste management in China, including five key domestic policies concerning the ban on transboundary shipments of e-waste into China, principles of domestic e-waste management, restrictions on the use of hazardous materials in electronic products, licensing of formal recyclers and treatment standards, and the establishment of a national e-waste collection system and recycling infrastructure. Since 2011, China’s legislative focus has been the national e-waste legislation titled “Regulations on the Administration of Recycling and Treatment of Executive summary Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment”, which attempts to formalize e-waste recycling in China by creating formal e-waste collection channels, issuing treatment licenses and providing subsidies to the formal sector. The analysis of the policy framework implies that explicit policy targets and strong enforcement on the part of local governments are essential to achieving these defined administrative objectives.
Chapter 6 introduces two national pilot projects that sought possible solutions to the problem of formalizing e-waste treatment systems in China. The “National Pilot on e-waste Collection and Recycling”, a project developed by the National Development and Reform Commission, was conducted from 2003-2006 and focused on constructing recycling plants in four target regions. The project demonstrated thatrecycling facilities face significant challenges in their ability to operate regularly and efficiently without a proper collection system in place to ensure a constant supply of waste to the facilities. In order toaddress this issue, the “Home Appliance Old for New Rebate Program”, which ran from June 2009 to December 2011, achieved notable success by providing consumers with economic incentives to turn in their household e-waste to formal collectors, who then sold the collected e-waste to designated recyclers for environmentally-responsible processing. In this program, both designated collectors and recyclers received government subsidies. Finally, this chapter briefly highlights key international collaborations, projects and agencies that provide insight and guidance for efforts to address e-waste issues in China.
Chapter 7 provides a system map of the relevant stakeholders in e-waste management in China. The central government is in the pivotal position to regulate, manage and coordinate the collection, treatment and disposal of e-waste, while local governments are responsible for implementation. Producers provide important financial support to the formal management of the system by paying the treatment fees stipulated in the national e-waste legislation. While formal collectors and recyclers are still limited in size and remain heavily dependent on government supports and subsidies, the scope and influence of informal collectors, refurbishers and backyard recyclers is still considerable. Consumers are accustomed to selling their obsolete equipment to the informal sector and tend to use formal channels onlywhen offered greater economic benefit. Scientific research plays an important role in the process of problem definition, impact assessment and decision making, with policymakers frequently drawing on academic scholarship in order to make informed policy decisions. Finally, cooperation from foreign governments and international organizations helps to bring state-of-the-art treatment technologies, best management practices and effective policies to China.
Chapter 8 concludes this report by identifying key research gaps and proposing a list of key steps in the effort to address China’s e-waste challenges, including: 1) conducting research on the routes, trading mechanisms and quantities of transboundary flows of e-waste into China; 2) gathering data on, and developing a more accurate portrait of, e-waste flows within China, including a clearer pictures of the volume of EEE put on the market, the amount of e-waste collected and treated by the formal and informal sectors, and the scale of the market for refurbished and second-hand equipment; 3) developing a systematic assessment of the current state of e-waste treatment levels and industrial development in China, as well as approaches to improve the health and environmental conditions in the informal sector; and, 4) facilitating the transfer of best technologies and practices related to critical processes and waste streams in order to substantially upgrade and improve e-waste treatment in China.