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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  Referred to as e-waste, these outdated products contain a diverse range of components that include everything from valuable precious metals to highly toxic chemical compounds.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.


Babu, B.R., Parande, A.K., and Basha, C.A., 2007.  Electrical and electronic waste: a global environmental problem.  Waste Management & Research, 25(4), p.307-318.

Bi, X., Thomas, G.O., Jones, K.C., Qu, W., Sheng, G., Martin, F.L., and Fu, J., 2007.  Exposure of electronics dismantling workers to polybrominated diphenyl ethers, polychlorinated biphenyls, and organochlorine pesticides in south China.  Environmental Science and Technology, 41, p.5647-5653.

Clapp, J., 1994.  The toxic waste trade with less-industrialised countries: economic linked and political alliances.  Third World Quarterly, 15(3), p.505-518

Deng, W.J., Louie, P.K.K., Liu, W.K., Bi, X.H., Fu, J.M., and Wong, M.H, 2006.  Atmospheric level and cytotoxicity of PAHs and heavy metals in TSP and PM2.5 at an electronic waste recycling site in southeast China.  Atmospheric Environment, 40(36), p.6945-6955.

Hicks, C., Dietmar, R., and Eugster, M., 2005.  The recycling and disposal of electrical and electronic waste in China- legisative and market responses.  Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 25(5), p.459-471.

Hilty, L.M., 2005.  Electronic waste- an emerging risk?  Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 25(5), p.431-435.

Li, H., Yu, L., Sheng, G., Fu, J., and Peng, P., 2007.  Severe PCDD/F and PBDD/F pollution in air around an electronic waste dismantling area in China.  Environmental Science and Technology, (41), p.5641-5646.

Liu, X., Tanaka, M., and Matsui, Y., 2006.  Electrical and electronic waste management in China: progress and the barriers to overcome.  Waste Management & Research, 24(1), p.92-101.

Puckett, J., Byster, L., Westervelt, S., Gutierrez, R., Davis, S., Hussain, A., and Dutta, M., 2002.  Exporting harm: the high tech trashing of Asia.  [Online].  Seattle, WA: The Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.  Available at:

Streicher-Portea, M., Widmer, R., Jainc, A., Baderd, H.-P., Scheideffere, R, and Kytzia, S., 2005.  Key drivers of the e-waste recycling system: assessing and modeling e-waste processing in the informal sector in Delhi.  Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 25(5), p.472-491.

Tong, X. and Wang, J., 2004.  Transnational flows of e-waste and spatial patterns of recycling in China.  Eurasian Geography and Economics, 45(8), p.608-621.

Widmer, R., Oswald-Krapf, H., Sinha-Khetriwal, D., Schnellman, M., and Boni, H., 2005.  Global perspectives on e-waste.  Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 25(5), p.436-458.

Wong, M.H., Wu, S.C., Deng, W.J., Yu, X.Z., Luo, Q., Leung, A.O.W., Wong, C.S.C., Luksemburg, W.J., and Wong, A.S., 2007a.  Export of toxic chemicals- a review of the case of uncontrolled electronic waste recycling.  Environmental Pollution, 149(2), p.131-140.

Wong, C.S.C., Wu, S.C., Duzgoren-Ayin, N.S., Aydin, A., and Wong, M.H., 2007b.  Trace metal contamination of sediments in an e-waste processing village in China.  Environmental Pollution, 145(2), p.434-442.

Wong, C.S.C., Duzgoren-Ayin, N.S., Aydin, A., and Wong, M.H., 2007c.  Evidence of excessive releases of metals from primitive e-waste processing in Guiyu, China.  Environmental Pollution, 148(1), p.62-72.

Originally posted to geodemographics on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 04:06 AM PST.


What happens to your e-waste?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Questions, comments, or mojo? (6+ / 0-)

    While researching this project, I ran into one website that basically said "The monitor you are reading this message on will meet the end of its lifecycle in Guiyu."

    This issue won't be going away anytime soon.

    There are rules, laws, and the rule of law. George W. Bush has disregarded all three.

    by geodemographics on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 04:21:29 AM PST

  •  bushies dream of this kind of lax regulation (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Zwoof, geodemographics

    China simply is too big to keep an eye on this kind of pollution without a lot more honest bureaucrats doing their job. The long term effect of poisoned food in a country that is quickly building over farmland now is a scary thing to contemplate.

    I have emotional ties to China(adopted a son from there;have many friends)but have said for years that I really want China to succeed in its development, because if it fails it is disaster for the whole world. An unstable, food-deprived China is bad, bad, bad for the world. Look at the rainforests turned to soybeans now.

    No answers, but just a good reminder that trash goes somewhere, and we need to pay more attention.

    The pump don't work 'cause a vandal took the handle.

    by Chun Yang on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 05:30:01 AM PST

    •  Have you seen Manufactured Landscapes? (0+ / 0-)

      It is a fantastic documentary film that offers insight into the changes currently taking place in China right now.

      The scope of the economic and environmental transformation is astounding.  The film forced me to rethink many of my preconceived notions of what China's economic boom was all about.

      There are rules, laws, and the rule of law. George W. Bush has disregarded all three.

      by geodemographics on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 05:43:47 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  was there in 99 and 2005;change is staggering (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I have seen these sudden new neighborhoods north of Beijing, relocating older folks out of the city and older buildings, clearing farmland,etc.I have stayed in some of the same places and found everything was different - know native Beijingers who went back after some years and got lost in their own city. But the food supply threats worry me the most.

        The pump don't work 'cause a vandal took the handle.

        by Chun Yang on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 06:50:07 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  The water quality is deteriorating, too. (0+ / 0-)

          A lot of people aren't aware that Beijing's aquifer is being rapidly depleted and degraded.

          I have heard many stories like yours.  The rate at which urbanization is taking place in China is impossible to comprehend for most people who don't live there.

          Two new coal-burning power plants are being built every week in China.  Imagine the acid rain problems in New England if an identical energy plan was implemented in the Ohio River Valley.

          Most people in the industrialized world still have no idea of what is happening in China right now and don't really care to know.

          It's a shame, because so-called "national" environmental problems don't respect man-made international boundaries at all.  Nobody is really immune.

          There are rules, laws, and the rule of law. George W. Bush has disregarded all three.

          by geodemographics on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 07:15:29 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  i have posted on this before (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            The other thing seen is that orphanages have more and more kids with severe birth defects - the missing arm, the massive cleft palate, the heart and intestine abnormalities. These kids will not be adopted, and will be abandoned by families who cannot afford medical care for them. People who work in dirty factories without ventilation, and more and more, those who eat root crops like sweet potatoes with high levels of heavy metals will give birth to more infants with severe problems.Lung diseases, cancers will strain their health care system beyond belief.Of course, it hits them first but as we import so much from China, and the winds still blow, it is only a matter of time before we see that here. In my lifetime(56 years) I only knew a couple of people who had babies born with any kind of birth defect, but I have seen lots of these babies in China. And I have only visited a couple of orphanages.

            The pump don't work 'cause a vandal took the handle.

            by Chun Yang on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 07:24:31 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  I've heard that the air pollution in China (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            winds up getting propagated back to the West Coast. I'm not surprised, and I am certainly not pleased. Other than that, the diary reminds me of a San Jose Mercury article on the same topic published 2 or 3 years ago, and the only change since then has been for the worse.

            Looking for intelligent energy policy alternatives? Try here.

            by alizard on Sun Feb 24, 2008 at 01:18:51 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

    •  Thanks for responding! (0+ / 0-)

      As far as "lax regulation," let's be very clear- Bush would be happy if there was no regulation by Chinese authorities at all.

      He doesn't care if the regulations on the books are enforced or not, as long as U.S. corporations have unfettered access to foreign markets.

      Milton Friedman would be happy.

      The rest of us are troubled.

      There are rules, laws, and the rule of law. George W. Bush has disregarded all three.

      by geodemographics on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 05:57:04 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  the worst thing about this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chun Yang, geodemographics

    Even when you try to do the right thing, you have no idea if you're helping or hurting.  When I bought a new cell phone recently, I put my old one in the recycling mailer they provided to me and sent it off.  But I have no idea what happened to it after that.  If could have just gone into some dump.

    About 6 months ago my old laptop died on me and it's been sitting in the trunk of my car ever since.  I feel paralyzed about how to dispose of it safely, so I just end up letting it sit in my car.  It's crazy.

    The only computer-related items that I feel are really being recycled safely are my laser printer cartridges.  I always send back the old cartridges using the label provided to me, and I see the refurbished cartridges for sale in the store.  So I feel good that they are actually being reused, but that's the only bright spot.

    •  Exactly! (0+ / 0-)

      Even those of us who are actually conscious of the problem don't really know what will happen to most of the e-waste we produce.

      There are rules, laws, and the rule of law. George W. Bush has disregarded all three.

      by geodemographics on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 06:16:02 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  In this room we have a printer with which the (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      only thing wrong is a loose USB port --in a city of nearly 200,000 we couldn't find anyone to solder the connections back-- and an iMac with a dead power supply, which we were told the only way to replace was to cannibalize another iMac.
  •  Too bad this scrolled off the radar (0+ / 0-)

    But what do you do?

    I guess e-waste isn't a sexy subject.

    I'll be sure to put up a subjective, controversial candidate diary next time instead of painstaking original research.

    Or not.

    There are rules, laws, and the rule of law. George W. Bush has disregarded all three.

    by geodemographics on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 06:46:06 AM PST

  •  Good stuff, glad it got rescued (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Recycling in China is not only an industry, but a mindset.

    Everything is recycled.  If you have a beer at an outdoor cafe, there will usually be several people (usually old ladies) hovering around waiting to get the bottle or can.  I had one last week actually sit at my table and wait.

    I often see large loads of Styrofoam being bicycled throughh town and as I had heard there were few uses for this, wondered what they did with it. Well, while biking through a small fishing village last week I saw what they do with it,  They make huge flotation buoys for their fishing nets.

    Fortunately, I live in eco-friendly province (Hainan Island)that is trying to establish a tourist based economy.  The water is good and the aur is clear, but I have lived on the Mainland and suffered with all kinds of upper respiratory ailments.  That's why I moved here.

    But I do see small open-air shops that salvage electronics. They are filthy.  Often they are located on the same streets as upscale popular retail shops. I usually walk on the other side of the street if I can.  In China, the sidewalk in front of a shop is considered part of the shop and workers often work outside and foot traffic is blocked.

     These workers need to be educated and protected.

    Tellin' you all the Zomby troof Here I'm is...

    by Zwoof on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 08:56:39 PM PST

    •  Interesting comment, thanks for contributing (0+ / 0-)

      I remember when I was in SE Asia, street vendors would empty the contents of soda bottles into plastic bags, plunk in a plastic straw, and seal it with a rubber band just to save the bottle.

      I agree that education is key.  Bribery and the lack of adequate enforcement mechanisms for the handling of e-waste are major impediments to the implementation of the laws actually on the books.

      There are rules, laws, and the rule of law. George W. Bush has disregarded all three.

      by geodemographics on Sat Feb 23, 2008 at 09:40:28 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank You (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Thank you very much for posting this. I find it more than a little disturbing that, as someone who pays more than the average amount of attention to the world around me, I had no idea this problem was so severe. I'm glad to see this rescued, and I'll definitely be doing a bit of research of my own. Thanks again.

    I am not young enough to know everything. - Oscar Wilde

    by Karin J on Sun Feb 24, 2008 at 02:11:47 AM PST

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