Getting ready for e-waste regulations

Guest post by Chen Han

What happened to your old refrigerator, television, cell phone or computer? Whether or not you live in China, this “e-waste” may well have ended up there. In the country’s many low-tech recycling shops, the work provides income, but also generates serious environmental and health problems. The United States produced 3 million tonnes of e-waste in 2009, of which an unknown quantity was dumped illegally in China through the Hong Kong grey channels. In 2008, eight Australian ships carrying illegal e-waste to China were seized, and four more were seized in the first half of 2009.

China produces about 2.3 million tonnes of e-waste per year – still far less per capita than the United States, which produces the most in the world at 3 million tonnes. Unfortunately, Chinese levels are expected to jump 200% to 400% between 2007 and 2020. Given both the illegal dumping from the US and Australia, and the growth of domestic e-waste, the challenge for China is optimising the economic gains from e-waste recycling while preventing the harmful environmental and health effects.

China is attempting to meet this challenge with new e-waste regulations to make producers consider sustainability at every point on their supply chain and create a funding structure to pay for proper disposal. Uncertified e-waste centres can incur a 500,000 yuan (US$74,000) fine under the new rules, which were signed in March 2010 and will take effect in January 2011. The new requirements include technical standards and regulations to encourage more eco-friendly design, as well as a responsibility system and legal liability for producers and sellers of electronics. Domestic producers and sellers will pay into a fund to subsidise e-waste treatment. The only question is: are Chinese companies and consumers ready for it?

The number of reported high tech, low impact recycling centres is on the rise. Shanghai is supposed to have a number of collection facilities. The Haidian electronics area of Beijing  should have a few collection sites. In Wuxi, Suzhou, Taizhou and Tianjin, more high-tech e-waste centres are springing up. Have you seen them? Have you turned anything into them? If you have successfully recycled your electronics through the centre, you could be participating in the first step to a practical solution to China’s growing e-waste problem.

However, unless the United States closes the intentional loopholes in e-waste export policy, profiteers on both sides of the Pacific will continue to prioritise revenues over public health. The Electronics Takeback Coalition estimates that 50% to 80% of US waste collected by recyclers gets shipped to other countries. The US Government Accountability Office released a report blaming the Environmental Protection Agency for allowing loopholes for dumping hazardous e-waste into China. And a sting operation by the US Government Accountability Office found 43 American companies willing to export illegally.