The grim reality of China's e-waste burden
Updated: 2007-01-30 07:16
It is a clich of the science fiction genre to posit a future in which humanity has had to surrender the Earth's surface to the cast-off electric appliances and other rubbish that nature could no longer accommodate.
The plotlines may be fictional, but the threat posed by such garbage is real enough. China is already groaning under the weight of electronic waste (e-waste), which has become a major source of pollution because of improper treatment.
Of all the different kinds of e-waste, home electronics call out most urgently for a legal or regulatory regime for recycling, experts said.
Home electronics represent a huge share of the e-waste generated every year, they said.
About 150 million television sets, washing machines, refrigerators, air-conditioners and computers are discarded every year in China, as well as an unknown amount of other home electronics, according to statistics from the China Home Electronics Association.
Moreover, an astounding 80 per cent of the home electronics thrown out by the developed world end up on container ships bound for Asia, with 90 percent of those destined for China, said a recent report by the Beijing-based Science and Technology Daily, the official newspaper of the Ministry of Science and Technology.
So where does all this electronic rubbish end up? Only 10 percent gets recycled, said the report.
The rest falls into the hands of the 10 million unlicensed "rubbish collectors" who patrol the country's neighborhoods looking for electronics to dismantle or operate larger business purchasing foreign garbage on a wholesale basis.
Of all the rubbish out there, collectors want electronics more than anything else. They can have used television sets repaired and sold in the countryside, or they can simply sell them to the many small, usually unlicensed workshops set up to extract the gold and copper from electronics.
These workshops rely on simple methods like acid baths or fire to extract the precious metals from e-waste. In the process they create a large amounts of toxic gases and release wastewater containing poisonous amounts of lead and mercury into lakes, rivers and farmland, as they are mostly located in rural areas.
The improper treatment of electronics creates serious pollution that takes more than a century to dissipate, exposing the men, women, and children of the countryside to major health hazards.
For example, the groundwater was so contaminated in Guiyu area, the e-waste processing center west of Shantou, in South China's Guangdong Province, that drinking water had to be trucked in from 30 kilometers away, said a 2001 report by the Seattle, Washington-based non-governmental organization Basel Action Network.
A sediment sample taken from a nearby contained 212 times more lead than would be considered hazardous waste had it been taken from the bottom of the Rhine River in the Netherlands, said the report.
The e-waste processing industry first took root in Guiyu because of the low costs: The simple techniques employed by the workshops there are much less expensive than the proper way to extract precious metals from waste.
Because of the expenses involved, most recyclers in the country cannot compete with workshops like those at Guiyu in terms of the prices they offer for e-waste, leaving them few supplies to work with.
Moreover, recyclers receive little or no government subsidies for recycling home electronics. There are no laws or regulations outlining government assistance for such processes.
The only policy on the recycling of home electronics that has been released does not mention government subsidies.
Issued by the State Environmental Protection Administration last August, the policy stipulates that manufacturers of home electronics are responsible for end-of-life treatment for their products.
It also says the key to preventing e-waste pollution is cutting down on the use of hazardous materials during disassembly. Such efforts will be rewarded by government purchases, it says.
But the policy focuses more on encouraging good behavior than punishing bad, and therefore has virtually little effect on reining in the booming e-waste processing industry. The policy also said nothing about how manufacturers would be held responsible for their products or how they would be punished for not doing so.
Recyclers have been looking forward to the publication of the Regulation on Recycling of Used Home Electronics, a draft of which was released by the State Development and Planning Commission in September 2004.
To their disappointment, however, the regulation has still not been
officially released. Insiders said there was some debate over whether the
government would subsidize recyclers.