UNU Releases China E-Waste Study

  • 2013•04•22     Bonn

    The Bonn-based Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) operating unit of the United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace has released an in-depth country study on the current state of waste electrical and electronic equipment (e-waste) in China. Developed under a grant agreement on e-waste cooperation between the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) Initiative hosted by UNU, the study — “E-Waste in China: A Country Report” — is a comprehensive assessment of China’s current e-waste situation.

    China is one of the world’s largest producers, consumers and exporters of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) as well as one of the largest importers of e-waste. As a result China plays a central role in the life cycle of much of the world’s EEE. The study analyses EEE consumption, domestic and transboundary e-waste flows, the e-waste collection and recycling sectors, legislative progress and e-waste stakeholders, in order to “enable better understanding of the e-waste system in China, including actors, projects, policies and other factors, and to facilitate further discussion, project initiation and communication among organizations working on e-waste in China”.

    The research investigated e-waste from major home appliances — products with the most consistent household consumption data including televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners, computers and mobile phones. Evaluating the period from 1995–2011, the study estimated that in 2011 alone:

    • 56.6 million televisions, 58.1 million refrigerators, 53.0 million washing machines, 94.8 million air conditioners and 73.9 million computers were sold in the formal market of China, along with 250 million mobile phones.
    • 1.2 million tonnes of televisions, 0.44 million tonnes of refrigerators, 0.32 million tonnes of washing machines, 0.99 million tonnes of air conditioners and 0.67 million tonnes of computers were discarded. Collectively, these five types of discarded products amounted to 3.62 million tonnes of waste in 2011.

    Taking into account consumer disposal habits, and following the path of e-waste through informal and formal collection and recycling systems, the study acknowledges the blurred sector boundaries of e-waste flows and the challenges of forming sound policy responses. But following a review of China’s recent e-waste regulations, the report notes that “under the progressive development of pilot projects and domestic e-waste legislation over the past five years, the formal e-waste recycling industry in China has shown considerable growth in both treatment capacity and quality”.

    The study’s appraisal of e-waste stakeholders assimilates the factors influencing consumer preference, national strategy, transboundary e-waste movement, research and environmental protection to build an inclusive foundation for the study’s recommendations. It concludes that:

    “The Chinese government plays a central role in the planning, administration and monitoring of the e-waste system in China. Other actors, including universities and research institutions, companies, industry associations, NGOs and foreign governments and agencies also play important roles. Improvements in the e-waste management system can thus be achieved through a combination of legislative development and implementation evaluation, technology transfer and innovation, research, knowledge exchange and international cooperation.”

    “This work will facilitate better understanding of the whole e-waste system and provide key information and insights that will contribute to the achievement of the goal of reducing the negative environmental impacts from e-waste treatment while improving resource efficiency and the benefits to society.”