China in hand

China's WEEE regulation is designed to resolve the country's rapidly growing domestic e-waste problem. However, neither this directive nor the EU law on which it is modelled are adequately prepared, as Elius Levin reports

In response to the continued use of China as a dump for the toxic electronic waste of the international community, the Chinese authorities have formulated their very own WEEE regulation. Released late last year, the regulation’s second draft directly addresses the numerous small-scale family-run businesses that handle the bulk of this waste. Yet the proposed law and the authorities’ ban on imported scrap is only half the story.

China’s meteoric economic growth over the past two decades has generated a reported 28 million units of domestic WEEE, comprising computers, TV sets, refrigerators, washing machines, air-conditioners and mobile phones, among other things.

The National Development Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top economic planning agency, is responsible for WEEE policy formulation. It estimates that next year, in Beijing alone, an additional 6 million units of e-waste will be discarded, from the present 900 million consumer electronics units in use.

In 2004, local manufacturers within China sold more than 16 million computers, 40 million TV sets, 43 million air conditioners, 19 million refrigerators and 80 million mobile phones. In addition, Chinese consumers purchased more than 4 million home entertainment systems, 15 million DVD players, and 7.5 million car entertainment systems.

Meeting guidelines

China has been working since 2002 to define environmental protection guidelines, but it has yet to codify an acceptable body of regulations. The current version, Management Regulation on the Recycling and Treatment of Disposed Appliances and Electronics Products, is modelled upon the recently instituted EU law, and requires all foreign and local manufacturers to recycle their products or face severe fines and loss of licences. Numerous foreign manufacturers in China have for some time been instituting environmentally friendly practices, but many Chinese firms have not. The latter are expected to be severely affected by Chinese and European legislation; those firms most severely affected are likely to include Changhong, Haier, Konka and TCL – China’s largest domestic TV producers and exporters to the EU – as well as computer equipment manufacturers such as Lenovo and Founder.

As of last month, these Chinese exporters are now expected to pay insurance as a form of guarantee for future recycling costs. Presently, these Chinese firms are caught between a rock and a hard place – unsure of the full cost of their EU exports, while fretting about the incoming Chinese government law and anticipated further costs.

According to David Wang, who is the Professor of Environmental Engineering at Shanghai’s No. 2 Industrial University, the electronics industry rejected a draft of the NDRC’s version of WEEE in October 2004. “The NDRC’s proposition was that the Government should both impose a tax on electronics and set up a national recycling network,” recalls Wang. In reply, the industry, stating its lack of confidence that the government would be able to use the tax proceeds correctly, rejected the proposal. The NDRC is now drafting a proposal that would place the onus on industry itself.

In corresponding moves, the Government announced in July the establishment by the end of this year of WEEE recycling centres in Beijing and Tianjin, with the Beijing centre expected to treat 1.2 million units of e-waste. To handle the business, the Government has permitted China National Resources Development Holdings (CNRDH) to be the first company to start a national recycling business by setting up a network of recycling zones to manage the anticipated annual volume of used electronic products. The company is expected to spend around $100 million over the next two years to set up five large recycling industrial zones to serve China’s major manufacturing centres in Guangdong, Zhejiang and Yantai.

“The zones will house recycling plants for every major commodity, including steel and aluminum. They will also handle toxic chemicals such as mercury and lead, and accept waste materials from throughout their regions,” says the Executive Director of CNRDH, Li Qiaofeng.

Correspondingly, TV manufacturer TCL and household appliance distributor Suning provided their own announcement of a ‘take-back’ programme.

An alternative view

However, China-based environment NGOs remain sceptical. Greenpeace China toxics campaigner Zhao Yang says, “Our study of the effectiveness of the WEEE recycling system within China and removal-at-source shows that recycling will not work, as it is too complicated”.

For centuries, China has had a ‘secondary’ market – an informal army of community-based door-to-door buyers of old or disused goods for reclamation of metal and other materials. Modernisation has added e-waste to the mix, which now invariably finds its way to Guiyu in southern China and Taiyuan in the north, where the most rudimentary, inexpensive human methods are utilised to strip imported WEEE of their precious metals. The result: spillage of toxic chemicals such as brominated flame retardants, which leach into the soil and surrounding waterways. Then there’s the incineration of PVC plastics, which releases noxious gases into the atmosphere, seriously damaging both the environment and the health of the often unprotected villagers involved in disassembly.

Removal-at-source encouraged

Greenpeace China is strongly urging the transnational corporations, such as Samsung, Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Hewlett Packard, to remove toxic chemicals and endorse their removal-at-source. As an estimated 65% of discarded domestic WEEE finds its way into the secondary market, removal of this system will result in vast unemployment for the huge-but-untold numbers who rely on it. Removal-at-source therefore appears both a far less complicated and compelling solution.

Ab Stevels, Director of Philips Electronics’ Netherlands-based Sustainability Centre and consultant for its recycling programme within China, takes a broader view. As chief architect of EU WEEE developments since 1999, he has sought to lay down a comprehensive foundation for China’s effective WEEE recycling programme, in a combination of corporate and outreach work. He oversees the company’s recycling centres, including the joint Philips-LG TV and computer monitor glass recycling centre in Nanjing, capable of recycling 7 million tubes annually (75% recovery) of post-consumer glass, along with mercury removal.

Stevels’ outreach work, as Visiting Professor in Eco-design at the joint Delft University of Technology-Tsinghua University project, places him in a position to see the problem effectively and from both sides. And, if Philips appears to be doing it right, what is China doing wrong? And what has China yet to do?

Attitude change

According to Stevels, a fundamental attitude change is required – and it is now occurring. Up until the past two years, the Chinese authorities were apparently reluctant to invest in the necessary industry infrastructure development and to correct and control the current collection methods.

“The Chinese authorities have come to realise that ‘high tech’ means much more than merely putting in place some shredding machines, processing and treatment,” says Stevels. “They need to invest a substantial effort on numerous fronts – legal, operational, organisational, health standards implementation – and bring all the bits and pieces together for concerted infrastructure development. In short, a full-scale industry development.”

He also notes that the Chinese authorities are closely replicating the experience of Europe a decade ago.

Chinese manufacturers and exporters are totally unprepared for the changes which will be demanded by the new law. China’s necessary industry infrastructure was not in place – nor, it seems, were China’s exports stopped at the border from entering.

What now for China?

However, though we in Europe have for much longer been conscious of these environmental issues, it appears that the majority of EU Member States are not ready with their systems or their laws. According to Stevels, after a decade the EU presents a mixed picture: a WEEE law and very complex systems needing further precision in its rules with, essentially, only Holland, Belgium, Norway and Sweden with set rules in place.

Will China then follow down the path of the EU, or will it manage to chart a course more measured and practical, enabling it to move effectively beyond rhetoric? Only time will tell – and time is a commodity the Chinese government simply cannot afford to waste.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie