China: Electronic Wastebasket of the World?

As the world’s largest producer of electronic products, China also plays a key role in the recycling and disposal of e-waste. From old computer parts to refrigerators, a large share of the world’s old electronics end up in China for disposal, according to CNN’s Ivan Watson:

“According to United Nations data, about 70% of electronic waste globally generated ended up in China,” said Ma Tianjie, a spokesman for the Beijing office of Greenpeace.

“Much of [the e-waste] comes through illegal channels because under United Nations conventions, there is a specific ban on electronic waste being transferred from developed countries like the United States to countries like China and Vietnam.”

For the past decade, the southeastern town of Guiyu, nestled in China’s main manufacturing zone, has been a major hub for the disposal of e-waste. Hundreds of thousands of people here have become experts at dismantling the world’s electronic junk.

On seemingly every street, laborers sit on the pavement outside workshops ripping out the guts of household appliances with hammers and drills. The roads in Guiyu are lined with bundles of plastic, wires, cables and other garbage. Different components are separated based on their value and potential for re-sale. On one street sits a pile of green and gold circuit boards. On another, the metal cases of desktop computers. [Source]

The primitive ways in which old electronics are recycled in Guiyu and similar sites have generated environmental and public health concerns. When handled improperly, harmful substances from electronic waste often end up in local waterways and food chains, adding to China’s growing food scandals.

Increasingly, Watson notes, waste processed in places like Guiyu comes from Chinese, not Western, consumers. At Bloomberg View, meanwhile, citing a recent survey of U.S. e-waste disposal, Adam Minter argues that America’s role as an e-waste exporter to developing countries has been exaggerated:

Published in February, the study by the U.S. International Trade Commission surveyed 5,200 businesses involved in the e-waste industry (companies that received the survey were required by law to complete it, and to do so accurately), and found that almost 83 percent of what was put into American recycling bins in 2011 was repaired, dismantled or recycled domestically.

According to the same survey, only 0.13 percent of the 4.4 million tons of e-waste that Americans generated in 2011 was sent overseas for “final disposal” — a term that explicitly excludes recycling and reuse — with an additional 3 percent sent abroad for “unknown” purposes.

Reality is a far cry from the long-standing claim, first made by the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based nongovernmental organization in 2002, that as much as 80 percent of U.S. e-waste is exported to the developing world. Amazingly, even with the wide currency the claimhas enjoyed over the years among environmental organizations and the media, it was never based on a systematic study. [Source]

Read more on electronic waste processing in China via CDT.


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