What follows is old school.
It is a paper I wrote this past semester about electronic waste in China, exploring an important environmental issue that most people never think about because it is so far removed from their daily experience.
I say "old school" because everything that follows is referenced in academic journals that aren't distributed on the web unless you pay for them.
It is followed by policy recommendations that you can disseminate freely as you like. All of the writing that follows is my own, and you can distribute it as you wish, provided that you credit my sources as referenced.
Join me below the fold for a discussion about e-waste.
The international trade in electrical and electronic waste is an important public policy issue that has serious ramifications for the environment and human health. Rapid advances in scientific innovation, spurred by high consumer demand for new and improved technologies, have created an unprecedented problem of disposal for obsolete electrical and electronic devices. Referred to as e-waste, these outdated products contain a diverse range of components that include everything from valuable precious metals to highly toxic chemical compounds. Structural inequalities in the global economic system, coupled with strong demand for raw materials in developing countries with export-based manufacturing sectors, have led to a situation in which a disproportionate burden of the human health and environmental costs of e-waste recycling are borne by poor workers employed in the informal sector, particularly in China. This issue merits further inquiry because of its relevance to contemporary public policy and the broader debate over economic inequality and social and environmental justice.
This essay aims to accomplish several objectives. First, it will provide a solid background on the global issue of e-waste, explaining what it is, why it is a problem, and where it originates and ends up. Second, it will examine the drawbacks associated with e-waste in China, focusing on the city of Guiyu, the largest e-waste site in the world. Third, it will discuss Chinese policy, investigating barriers to the successful implementation of existing national and international laws. Lastly, it will offer key conclusions about what can be learned from the Chinese experience and offer recommendations that can be used to formulate and effectively put into practice new e-waste policies that better safeguard human health and the environment.
A standard definition of e-waste does not yet exist. Widmer et al (2005) note that the European Union has ten categories of e-waste, which include household appliances, various forms of telecommunications, consumer, and lighting equipment, electrical and electronic tools, medical devices, monitoring and control instruments, and toys, leisure, and sports equipment. These old and discarded goods are highly diverse in nature, which makes it difficult to arrive at a standard categorical definition. For the purposes of this briefing paper, e-waste will be used as a generic term that encompasses the totality of all the aforementioned goods.
E-waste is a growing problem that epitomizes many of the most troubling aspects of modern consumer culture. In 2005, e-waste accounted for eight percent of all municipal waste in the world (Babu et al 2007). The amount of e-waste being produced is accelerating due to the shorter life cycles of consumer electronic goods and the rapid expansion of markets for these products in the developing world, particularly India and China (Babu et al 2007; Streicher-Portea et al 2005). In 2004 alone, over 180 million new personal computers were sold around the world, and 100 million obsolete PCs entered the waste stream (Hilty 2005).
The process of disposal for these discarded products is a complex process. Due to the human health hazards posed by many chemical compounds used in the manufacture of electronic goods, many types of e-waste are also considered to be toxic wastes. The tightening of environmental laws in developed countries has led to an economic situation in which it is less expensive to export hazardous wastes overseas than dispose of them within national borders. In the United States, for example, the cost of hazardous waste disposal jumped from $15 per ton in 1980 to $250 per ton in 1988, compared to a disposal cost of $2.50 per ton in Africa (Clapp 1994). The prevailing trend has thus encouraged a transfer of hazardous wastes, along with their associated human health and environmental costs, from core economies to peripheral or semi-peripheral economies in the global system of trade.
Compounding this problem is the demand for raw materials in the developing world, particularly countries whose national economies are heavily reliant on export-based manufacturing. China and India are the two prime examples (Tong and Wang 2004). Although there is an economic and environmental logic to reusing and recycling electrical parts and components in the countries producing these goods, the reality on the ground is far more insidious. Given that China receives 90% of all recycled materials entering the Asian market (Widmer et al 2005), it is worth examining in further detail what happens when e-waste arrives in China and what the drawbacks of e-waste recycling look like on the ground.
E-waste in China: The Case of Guiyu
E-waste usually arrives in China under false auspices. Although Chinese law technically forbids the importation of seventh category waste, these regulations are easily circumvented through a variety of methods, particularly smuggling, corruption, poor funding, and lack of adequate enforcement mechanisms (Tong and Wang 2004; Puckett et al 2002). It is generally imported into China through port cities, particularly Nanghai in the Pearl River delta and Taizhou in the Yangtze River delta (Tong and Wang 2004). Active industrial clusters associated with the e-waste trade have also emerged in the coastal provinces of Zhejang, Shanghai, Tianjin, Hunan, Fujian, and Shandong (Liu et al 2006). After being imported, e-waste is transported to regional hubs for manual disassembly, often by migrant workers.
One of these hubs is the city of Guiyu in Guangdong Province, where 100,000 migrant workers from the Chinese countryside are employed in the e-waste sector, earning approximately $1.50 per day (Puckett et al 2002; Wong et al 2007a). A former rice-growing village, Guiyu is today the center of China's booming e-waste disassembly industry and the largest city in the world of its kind, with 80% of local families engaged in the e-waste sector (Bi et al 2007). The city is plagued by chronic pollution problems, and water has to be piped in from a neighboring town because the local drinking water is contaminated.
The most dangerous aspect of e-waste recycling in Guiyu is what is known as primitive dismantling. Methods used to perform this task include the stripping of metals in open-air acid baths to recover gold and other precious metals, chipping and melting of plastics, burning coated wires to recover copper, melting of electronic circuit boards to recover metal components, and open-air combustion of electronic scraps and unsalvageable waste (Deng et al 2006; Bi et al 2007; Wong et al 2007a). These practices take place without any protection for workers, so that chronic health problems are rampant in Guiyu (Bi et al 2007).
Large-scale primitive e-waste disassembly has resulted in a situation where levels of mercury, lead, arsenic, chromium, copper, zinc, and a host of other toxic metals are present in extremely high concentrations (Deng et al 2006; Wong et al 2007b; Wong et al 2007c). Additionally, the world's highest known concentrations of polybrominated diphenyls and dioxins are found in Guiyu (Bi et al 2007; Li et al 2007). These mutagenic and carcinogenic substances, which are some of the most toxic chemicals known to modern science, are extremely persistent organic pollutants that remain in the environment for decades.
Guiyu is today a textbook example of the major human health and environmental problems associated with the e-waste processing industry. It is also emblematic of the broader problems wrought by a global neoliberal economic regime that values profit over life.
E-waste Policy in China
What is occurring in China's e-waste sector is at odds with official government regulations. National laws exist designed to regulate the e-waste industry and prevent certain kinds of hazardous materials from entering the country. These laws and their inability to control the rampant problems associated with the e-waste sector merit further inquiry if effective measures are to be implemented that truly mitigate the devastating social and environmental impacts created by the e-waste industry.
Two early measures adopted by the Chinese government were the Law on the prevention of pollution from solid waste and Notification on the import of seventh category wastes, which came into effect in 1996 and 2000, respectively (Hicks et al 2005). The first piece of legislation was an early attempt on the part of the government to regulate the recycling industry by certifying importers of seventh category waste. The second law instituted a ban on the import of scrap of computers, panel displays, television cathode ray tubes, and similar e-waste products (Tong and Wang 2004). These were both top-down measures that lacked adequate enforcement mechanisms and failed to account for the growing role of private enterprise in China. As a result, certified state-owned businesses were unable to compete with individual entrepreneurs for e-waste and scrap metal supplies (Tong and Wang 2004).
The Notice on strengthening the environmental management of e-waste, issued in 2003, prohibited environmentally damaging processing of e-waste (Hicks et al 2005). However, it failed to create a management system for e-waste; it was therefore impossible to shut the informal sector down (Liu et al 2006). The Ordinance on the management of waste household electrical and electronic products recycling and disposal, submitted to the State Council in 2005 and currently waiting approval, is a more comprehensive piece of legislation designed to create a system of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) that forces manufacturers to take back products at the end of their useful lifecycle (Hicks et al 2005). It also aims to reduce the use of toxic and hazardous substances in the manufacturing process and establish a standardized certification system for the labeling of secondhand appliances (Hicks et al 2005; Liu et al 2006). Another recent piece of legislation, The draft management measure for the prevention of pollution from electronic products, puts further restrictions on the use of six hazardous substances in manufacturing, sets requirements for 'green product' design, and mandates manufacturer labeling that informs consumers of the presence of hazardous components in electronics and instructions on their safe use and recycling (Hicks et al 2005).
These regulatory policy measures are clearly a step in the right direction. What remains to be seen is whether they can be effectively implemented with the cooperation of private enterprise. The two most recent pieces of legislation, still awaiting approval before they become law, appear to be a more wholehearted attempt on the part of the Chinese government to adapt to the realities of profit-driven market economics. Whether these laws will be effective at mitigating the e-waste problem remains to be seen.
Key Conclusions and Recommendations
Electrical and electronic waste is a global problem that has had detrimental effects on the environment and human health. Developing countries with lax environmental laws, an abundance of cheap labor, and high demand for raw materials have shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden for the problems created by e-waste, particularly China. Shorter product lifecycles and increasing demand for electronic goods by consumers in the developing world have created an urgent need for regulatory measures that effectively address the e-waste problem. With these factors in mind, the following policy recommendations are offered with the goal of mitigating the health and environmental impacts of e-waste:
-Labeling of hazardous materials in electronics should be mandatory.
-Strict controls on the use of hazardous substances by manufacturers of electronic products should be implemented.
-The principle of Extended Producer Responsibility should be expanded so that manufacturers are held accountable for the full lifecycles of the products they produce. Binding timelines for phased implementation of EPR should be created.
-Grants and subsidies should be created to encourage the development of technologies that enable ecologically sound disassembly of electronic waste products.
-Employers in the ewaste sector must include safety education as part of training and provide workers with equipment that reduces the risk of occupational health hazards.
-Strict legal and monetary penalties should be enforced for companies and employers who break the law.
-Efforts to remediate present and former ewaste sites should be undertaken.
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