China Deals With Growing Electronic Waste Challenge

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By Michael Standaert

Nov. 21 — China has made strides in the past five years to improve electrical waste and electronic equipment practices that are harmful to the environment, but recycling, the central government said, can do more to help businesses.

The central government has made concerted efforts to shut down unsafe and unregulated electronic waste disposal operations, especially in “e-waste villages” like Guiyu in eastern Guangdong province in South China. Officials recently shuttered all informal electronics processing at Guiyu and required trade shops to relocate to an industrial park set up to recycle waste electronics.

In addition, China has banned imports of waste electronic products into the mainland. The central government also updated its waste electrical and electronic equipment, or WEEE, catalog of products that are required to be collected and recycled to include mobile phones, monitors, faxes, printers, copiers, telephones, as well as televisions, computers, refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioning units.

Room for Improvement

But more still has to be done throughout the country’s entire supply chain to improve standardized treatment rates, according to recycling companies.

“Enforcement and monitoring through the entire recycling chain still needs to be improved,” Elwin Meng, a representative of global materials and recycling group Umicore, said Nov. 17 at the World Recycling Forum in Macau, China. “End processing still needs to be monitored to avoid secondary pollution.”

Chee Kong Lee of recycling technology company Hamos GmbH of Germany, cited a growing need for government intervention, as well as public education to relay the impact of waste products more discarded and outdated electronics pile up.

“There is an expanding middle class all over the world, particularly in China and India, so we will see a lot more WEEE coming on-stream because of the growth in these countries,” Lee said at the forum.

Burdens on Companies

There are 109 licensed WEEE dismantlers across the country that are subsidized to recycle electronic waste, but it “is a challenge for the government” to push some of them to treat waste, Meng said.

Those processors have about 4 million metric tons of processing capacity, but currently only about 1.7 million tons is being processed on average, he said.

Complicating matters are the number of agencies involved in the electronic waste system in China, and the time it takes to audit and monitor them and then pay tour subsidies.

Subsidies payout “is long, causing a lot of burden on companies. Those companies need to pay for the dismantling in advance and it can take up to a year, a year and a half to get the subsidies paid out,” Meng said.

Another challenge is to control secondary pollution during dismantling. Printed circuit boards, for example, often have metal contents of 10 percent to 50 percent and include heavy metals, dioxins and other potentially hazardous materials that are released during burning, washing or shredding.

“China’s government is starting to control these recycling processes in industrial zones, where they can be done in an environmentally friendly way, but most of those operating outside of industrial zones are very bad for water and soil pollution,” said Zhang Leiman of recycling technology company 3E Machinery Guangzhou.

There also is evidence that trafficked electronic waste that formerly went into China is ending up in similarly toxic informal processing sites in rural parts of Hong Kong, Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia, according to Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, who tracks the movement of electronic waste out of North America.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Standaert in Macau, China, at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

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