As I've argued elsewhere on this blog, climate change – despite its popularity as an environmental cause in the developed world – really doesn't have much of a constituency in China. And among the most important reasons for that lack of popular interest is the persistence of far more immediate, and toxic, environmental issues. Of these, perhaps none is faster growing or more dangerous than the growth of domestically-generated electronic wastes such as old computers, televisions, and other home appliances.
For years, environmental organizations in the developed world have raised significant money (and white guilt) by suggesting – wrongly – that the majority of the e-waste in China's e-waste processing yards comes from the United States and the EU. No doubt, some of it does (and, in the past, much of it did). But that's not the case, anymore. China recently became the world's second largest PC market and – more immediately – this fall it implemented a home appliance trade-in program to encourage the purchase of new televisions, PCs, refrigerators, washing machines, and air-conditioners by Chinese consumers. In return for trading in their old appliances, Chinese consumers receive significant discounts on the purchase of new ones.
The program has been wildly successful: according to state-owned media, in just the first three months of the program, 2.39 million appliances were "recycled." There's just one problem: China doesn't yet have sufficient environmentally-secure capacity for recycling such a large quantity of used appliances (for more info, see my recent FP piece on the subject). Instead, it continues to rely disproportionately on dangerous, environmentally destructive methods of e-waste processing (acid baths, for example).
In the next two years, this situation should change significantly, as China's waste appliance laws come into effect, and law-abiding processors receive government subsidies to support their revenue-intensive efforts. But that's in the future. What about now?
According to a fascinating blog post by Elizabeth Balkan at the New Energy and Environment Digest [NEED], some of that material is flowing into North Korea. Balkan writes:
… [t]he US and Europe for years have exported trash to developing countries in Asia and Africa at a lower cost and with fewer environmental safeguards. It is therefore somewhat unsurprising, but no less disheartening, to find out that China, too, is joining the ranks of countries opting to manage waste by having less developed countries manage it for them – often at considerable health and environmental risks.
The newest recipient country is not in Africa or Southeast Asia, as one might expect.
Rather, it appears that waste is being diverted to North Korea, China's northeastern neighbor, whose western coast lies directly across from China's prosperous coastal areas and many port towns.
As Balkan notes – this isn't completely surprising. And it's not an altogether new story, either (there have been scattered reports to this effect over the last two years). Last week, when I was in Korea, I was told that North Korea is making millions from gold refined from old circuit boards processed in the sorts of e-waste workshops long associated with South China and East Africa. Balkan cites an important if disheartening South Korean newspaper report that claims:
North Korean organizations in charge of raising foreign currency are bringing in and burying industrial waste from China for money, a report released yesterday said.
The report also said North Korean scientists who complained that their country is turning into China's industrial waste site have been purged in North Korea.
Daily NK, a media outlet on North Korean affairs, quoted a source in the North's South Hamkyong Province as saying, "The soil survey research center at Hamhung Institute of Technology released a research paper on its study of land pollution resulting from burial of industrial waste from China and a letter urging countermeasures to the Central Committee of the (North Korean) Workers' Party. The institute was dismantled and senior officials and researchers were all purged."
Based upon this passage, there's more than one cross-border toxic industry in play here. E-waste – and by that I mean appliances that contain recyclable materials – has value, and nobody who goes through the trouble of bringing it over the North Korean border is then going to turn around and bury it. Instead, they'll process it – most likely, in ways that are environmentally ruinous – and then sell the metals. If the North Koreans are burying hazardous materials, those materials aren't recyclable.
Neither Balkan nor the paper she cites indicates just how much Chinese e-waste is flowing into North Korea. But based upon what I know of the domestic Chinese e-waste trade, and how it's conducted in China, I would guess that it is actually very little. Most likely, the majority of the material is sourced north of Beijing, by businesses that can save money by shipping the material cross-border rather than to other parts of China (particularly the south). And, based upon the photo posted to Balkan's blog, I suspect that the e-waste is being pre-processed in China – that is, easily recovered and recyclable components are removed from the appliances before the circuit boards and more difficult to recover materials are shipped to North Korea.