Why China is still the dumping ground for the world’s electronic refuse

Where your cell phone goes to die.
Where your cell phone goes to die.
Image: Reuters/stringer
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This week, Chinese officials announced the successful raid on three gangs responsible for smuggling in over 72,000 tonnes (79,366 tons) of illegal electric waste—the detritus from computers, cell phones, fans, and other appliances thrown away in Japan, the US, and Europe. Officials said it was the largest amount of smuggled e-waste ever discovered in the country.

But the seizure is also more evidence that China has a major problem on its hands. Beijing has banned the import of e-waste since 2000 due to health and environmental hazards—metals like mercury and cadmium can leak into local water resources, and children are often used to disassemble the items. Still, an estimated 8 million tonnes (pdf, p. ix) of e-waste is smuggled into the country via Hong Kong and Vietnam each year, mostly to Guangdong province.

Image: United Nations

China is the world’s biggest importer of trash generally, from plastic and paper to electronic waste. As Quartz reported in May, Beijing has been making attempts to reduce these imports, especially from the US. Other countries have also been trying to cut down on the industry of waste export, both legal and illegal, with many having signed a United Nations convention on the cross-border movement of hazardous waste.

But companies that need to dispose of their electronic waste, either to avoid taxes or to comply with environmental laws, still have a strong incentive to ship their refuse abroad. In China, the scrap products are stripped for bits of gold, copper, aluminum or silver that can be sold to make cheap second-hand goods. In East Asia alone, it’s estimated that the e-waste black market is worth $3.75 billion.

To make matters worse, the world’s e-waste is expected to increase by another 33% to 72 million tons by 2017, the equivalent of 11 Great Pyramids of Giza.