This blog recently reported on a new bill that was introduced in the U.S. to prohibit the export of “restricted electronic waste” from the U.S. to developing nations.

In China, a new regulation called Management Regulations for Recycling and Disposing of Consumer Electronics and Electronic Waste will go into effect on January 1, 2011. This regulation aims to manage the importing, recycling and disposing of e-waste in China.

I am excited to hear the good news and hope that these new regulations will become effective tools to remedy the unjust e-waste “trade” that exists between developing and developed countries, such as that between China and the U.S. Over time, it has been common for U.S. “recyclers” to export waste, including toxic items, to countries like China, where labor and environmental laws are lacking.

March 8, 2005 Guiyu, Guangdong, China. A child sitting on a pile of wires and electronic waste. Photo by Greenpeace/Natalie Behing

I was shocked by a report released in 2009 by Greenpeace, revealing that Guiyu, China has become an e-waste town, where many inhabitants make a living by importing and recycling electronic waste. Guiyu is located at Chaonan area of Shantou city, Guangdong province. It covers 52.4 square km of land and includes 28 villages and 150,000 permanent residents. According to the Greenpeace report (1), Guiyu has become the “largest distribution center for electronic waste dismantling in China, and even in the world.” Since the early 90s, e-waste disposal has been the main industry of this town. There are more than 5,500 e-waste disposal plants in this town, contributing 75 million RMB (about $11 million) every year, and providing employment opportunities for more than 100,000 residents.*

However, these benefits come at a price: environmental health and human safety. E-waste recycling in Guiyu is dangerous work that has marred the landscape.

More than 1.5 millions pounds of e-waste is processed each year in Guiyu, including cell phones, computers, printers, and other electronic products, 80% of which come from developed countries, including the U.S.* This waste contains plastic, toxic organic compounds, and toxic heavy metals like gold, lead, copper, tin and antimony. Workers, often without proper protection, break down e-waste mostly by hand and extract precious metals and other valuable materials by burning and soaking materials in acids. The remaining ash is often dumped directly into rivers, canals, and other local waterways or buried nearby. Many wells are polluted too. Communities have lost their access to drinking water and are forced to truck in fresh water daily. LiuSi, a college student from Central University of Finance and Economics (Beijing) visited the town of Guiyu in December 2006 as a volunteer. She talked to a local family and found out that they had to buy water for daily life just like food. However the cheap water they bought doesn’t taste good. They can’t afford “good” water.

Local residents, especially children, are exposed to high-level of toxic metals like cadmium and lead. A study by QuXia, a professor at the Medical School, Shantou Univeristy, shows that “the stillbirth rate is six times higher than control group between 2003 and 2007”, and “the preterm delivery rate is as high as 62%.”

The new Chinese regulation Management Regulations for Recycling and Disposing of Consumer Electronics and Electronic Waste was passed by the state council of China on August 20, 2008 and will finally go into effect on January 1, 2011. The regulation makes several important points:

  1. No toxic e-waste can be imported;
  2. A permit is required for any e-wastes treatment;
  3. An e-waste treatment plant must be equipped with pollution treatment facilities…

However, the description of what qualifies as toxic e-waste is vague and the type of technologies that should be used for e-waste treatment is not specified. Additionally, the penalties for violations are not substantial enough to deter violators. For example, violators will be fined less than 50,000 RMB (about $7,495) for importing or buying toxic electronic waste.

New laws and policies in China that are designed to defend the environment are encouraging. However, without strict enforcement and high penalties, I know these laws will accomplish little. I feel better knowing environmental lawyers, like ELAW’s partners, are watching and working every day to enforce justice.

Chu Chen
ELAW Program Associate
China

* The biggest e-wastes villages—Guiyu, Guangdong: http://discover.news.163.com/09/0412/09/56MIHS4J000125LI.html