Toxic Treasures Line the E-waste Silk Road: From Europe to Chinathucice
Electronic waste (e-waste) has long been a problem for highly developed countries such as United States, European Union and Japan. Its management has major commercial and environmental significance. E-wastes contains numerous valuable metals, such as gold, silver, platinum and rare earths, much of which can reap economic benefit if recovered. These same heavy metals can cause human and ecological harm if leached out to the environment without proper treatment, giving their proper management a double win for both economic and environmental reasons. That said, only 16% of global e-wastes are treated properly (in government or industry-approved facilities) , and the problem has migrated, along with the wastes, from their country of origin to emerging markets.
Effective treatment and control of e-waste is currently facing more and more obstacles caused by illegal shipments. It has been identified by the European Union Action to Fight Environmental Crime that these unlawful operations are intensively taking place all around the globe. As Figure 1 clearly demonstrates, there is a disproportionate amount of e-waste shipped from highly developed to low-middle developing countries. That is, a lot of the waste from countries in the EU, United States and Japan end up in China, India and countries in Africa. China, in particular, has been a popular destination. In 2012, it has been estimated that China produced about 12.2 million tons (11.1 million metric tons), but they receive 70% of the 20-50 million tons to global e-waste produced yearly . So why are these wastes being transported abroad? First, we must address the question of growth in related industries. Rapid technological development has pushed a massive global electric and electronic waste increase, adding an extra layer of obsolescence. Now, not only do products age from wear and tear to become waste, but need to be replaced every few years for consumers to keep up with the latest technologies and trends. Traditionally, producers have not been responsible for end-of-life wastes, and thus most give little thought to the collection and recovery of waste. While this is changing with the development of extended producer responsibility thinking and legislation to restrict the export of e-waste, the life cycle of these wastes is rather complicated. It passes through many different hands before disposal (Figure 2), leaving room for illegal exports of waste to be sent abroad to be treated elsewhere at a much lower cost. By some accounts, it is 10 times cheaper to ship waste to China than to deal with locally in Europe . This, combined with poor enforcement, inadequate penalties, and an overall low risk of being caught, have significantly pushed unlawful waste exports to China.At the same time, there is China, where an increasing level of unemployment pushes more and more locals to be involved in these activities. Chinese laws strictly prohibit the import of e-wastes into the country, but due to strong economic incentives for recycling, many locals do so illegally. It has been estimated that approximately 700,000 working spaces have been created for local migrant labor in Guiyu, the largest e-waste recycling area located in Guangdong province .However, this is not the only location where restricted e-waste recycling is happening. Qingyuan in Guangdong, and Taizhou in Zhejiang provinces are two other examples of illegal recycling cities. Illegal wastes are usually imported into the country under the guise of second-hand materials, which are not prohibited. They are they treated in the informal recycling sector, which in many cases leads to toxic releases into the environment, causing health and ecological problems. They come from dismantling electronic equipment, heating and manual removal of components from printed circuit boards, uncontrolled incineration of cables and wires to recover metals, shredding and and melting plastics, toner sweeping, open acid leaching of e-waste to recover precious metals, etc. All of the procedures cause serious health problems, particularly deformation of bodies, respiratory problems, skin infections, and leukemia. In best case scenarios, electronic wastes end up in second-hand markets for reuse in part or whole. Rural residents could then purchase and extend the lifespan of these products, but not after their processing has taken its toll on human and environmental health.
Both Europe and China have taken measures to control the illegal movement of e-waste. The European Union developed the Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR), which is a part of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. The major purpose of WSR, as well as Basel Convention, is the regulation of shipments associated with uncontrolled e-waste. For China’s part, they have signed the Basel Convention, and passed a law in 2002 on the Regulation of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) to prohibit hazardous waste imports. Moreover, legislation was passed in 2005 on Management Measures for the Prevention of Pollution from Electronic Products, and in 2009 on the Administration of Recovery and Disposal of Electric and Electronic Products. Yet despite these laws, the question still arises, which is how these toxic wastes are still moved from Europe to China? The major problem is that WSR does not prohibit the export of used and second-hand Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) to non-OECD countries (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development). E-wastes can then be passed off or hidden in second-hand electronics and sent abroad in a legally grey area. This has become the standard exporting practice for moving e-Waste from developed to developing countries. As of 2017, the focus has shifted to enforcing already existing laws. Just last month, China announced an action plan and gave notice to the WTO that they would do more to crack down on what they deem as “imported ocean wastes”, or wastes coming from abroad . This includes e-waste as well as a slew of other waste materials – textiles, tyres, plastics, etc. As the issue is very sensitive particularly to local economics, part of their action plan will be to bolster recycling of e-waste: integrate informal and scattered collection centres, build up local recycling infrastructure, and promote recycling technologies. In this way, they can stop importing wastes from abroad, while still providing much needed jobs to local economies.
While the focus for this article has been on China’s e-waste, the problem is growing in other developing markets, such as India and Vietnam. This will be especially true in the future if China makes good on its plan to crack down on illegal imports of e-waste.
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