China’s Role in Illegal Trade of Toxic E-Waste Rising Sharply

Discarded smartphones and other gadgets are poisoning the environment and people in developing countries, where most of the world’s electronic waste (e-waste) is being dumped illegally and now involves criminal gangs, the UN’s environment arm warned in a May 12 report.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said between 60-90 percent of electronic waste is ending up in mountains of rubbish throughout the developing world, or is traded through criminal e-waste smuggling networks worth billions of dollars.

This is in violation of the Basel Convention, which aims to control international trade of hazardous substances.



This Chinese Filmmaker Can’t Stop Talking Trash

Sun Yunfan
Documentary filmmaker and photographer Wang Jiuliang spent four years, between 2008 and 2011, documenting over 460 hazardous and mostly illegal landfill sites around Beijing.His award-winning film Beijing Besieged by Waste (2011) provoked intense...

Without proper facilities, the removal of copper, lead, and plastics from discarded electronic items pollutes local air, soil, and water, widening the health impacts of a sector already hazardous to workers tasked with stripping resalable components.

In southern China and West Africa, sprawling complexes of garage-style workshops employ tens of thousands to extract valuable material and compounds from electrical items which are being discarded at an ever-increasing rate.

The electronics industry, which according to the UNEP report currently generates 41 million tonnes of e-waste, is expected to grow to an annual 50 million tonnes as early as 2017.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented amount of electronic waste rolling out over the world,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in a statement.

Regulatory Loopholes

The illegal, and largely secretive, trade in e-waste is difficult to measure, but the report estimates a scale of at least $19 billion annually.

Varying standards used by exporting and importing countries in regulation of e-waste makes it difficult to combat the illegal trade and enables informal markets to thrive.



Junkyard Planet

Adam Minter
When you drop your Diet Coke can or yesterday’s newspaper in the recycling bin, where does it go? Probably halfway around the world, to people and places that clean up what you don’t want and turn it into something you can’t wait to buy. In Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter—veteran journalist and son of an American junkyard owner—travels deeply into a vast, often hidden, multibillion-dollar industry that’s transforming our economy and environment. Minter takes us from back-alley Chinese computer recycling operations to high-tech facilities capable of processing a jumbo jet’s worth of recyclable trash every day. Along the way, we meet an unforgettable cast of characters who’ve figured out how to build fortunes from what we throw away: Leonard Fritz, a young boy “grubbing” in Detroit’s city dumps in the 1930s; Johnson Zeng, a former plastics engineer roaming America in search of scrap; and Homer Lai, an unassuming barber turned scrap titan in Qingyuan, China. Junkyard Planet reveals how “going green” usually means making money—and why that’s often the most sustainable choice, even when the recycling methods aren’t pretty. With unmatched access to and insight on the junk trade, and the explanatory gifts and an eye for detail worthy of a John McPhee or William Langewiesche, Minter traces the export of America’s recyclables and the massive profits that China and other rising nations earn from it. What emerges is an engaging, colorful, and sometimes troubling tale of consumption, innovation, and the ascent of a developing world that recognizes value where Americans don’t. Junkyard Planet reveals that we might need to learn a smarter way to take out the trash.—Bloomsbury Press

According to the report, the illegal e-waste trade is driven by a ban on exports of hazardous materials from members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to non-OECD countries.

The report also notes attempts by nations that import e-waste, such as China’s “Green Fence” operation launched in 2013 to combat e-waste smugglers, often result in smuggling networks switching to new transit routes for the illicit cargo.

Countries in which e-waste is currently dumped or smuggled typically have relatively weak environmental or enforcement standards. When shipped, unwanted electronic goods banned for export are deliberately mislabeled, the UNEP report said. Batteries, for instance, can be smuggled as either “plastic” or “mixed scrap metal.”


Growth in the use of electronics in Asia means consumers in these countries are catching up with their counterparts in OECD member states, making it likely even greater amounts of hazardous waste will be shipped to Africa, where wages are lower and environmental safeguards weaker.

Sinica Podcast


Trash Talk with Adam Minter

Jeremy Goldkorn & Adam Minter from Sinica Podcast
Anyone living in China doubtless has a sense of the unholy number of people who seem to be involved in the trash trade here, and who will ferret away everything from your cardboard boxes to plastic bottles faster than you can unpack them or consume...

China, and the Pearl River Delta in particular, remains a major destination of e-waste. 

China is also now a major source of home-grown items that often fetch more in the environmentally-unregulated “workshop” sector than the regulated sector. (For a chinadialogue story on this, click here.)

China’s population of 1.3 billion, a big increase in living standards and massive expansion in the manufacture of cheap, relatively short-life electronic goods means that e-waste is likely to remain a major domestic environmental problem, even if a higher percentage of waste is likely to be shipped to poorer countries in West Africa.



Moving a Mountain, of Trash

from chinadialogue
On July 1, tough new standards for pollution from waste incinerators came into effect. The move is an attempt to end the conflict between communities across China and the nearby rubbish-burning plants they believe threaten their health and house...

Beginning last decade, African brokers have been operating in southern China to collect second-hand goods such as kettles, shavers, and washing machines to be transported to countries such as Ghana and Nigeria.

China had well over a billion mobile phones in circulation as of late 2014, many of which will be discarded as newer, more advanced handsets become available.

The country as a whole generated an estimated 1.7 million tonnes of e-waste in 2006, a number expected to rise to 5.4 million tonnes in 2015.


UNEP recommended some potential solutions to the problem that should involve both developed and developing countries, including monitoring of e-waste trade routes, and closer safeguards against possible involvement of organized crime.

It added that countries should also beef up enforcement and co-operate more closely to encourage the safe return of illegal waste shipments, and bolster international agreements.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that last year China accounted 56% of shipments of e-waste to the developing world as detected by the European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law (IMPEL). This number referred not to e-waste but to all illegal waste shipments.