E-Scrap in China: A Personal Perspective

Over the last five years I’ve published several articles that addressed China’s long-standing trade in imported first-world electronic scrap and other high-tech trash. It’s a fascinating topic, with multiple facets, none more interesting (to me, at least) than the willingness of American, Japanese, and European scrap processors to send hazardous materials to China in violation of international law, national laws, and their own better angels (at this point, after so much media coverage, no exporter can claim ignorance about the illicit nature of the trade, nor its often unsavory consequences).

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Yet before today, I had never sold any e-scrap myself! So, this morning when I realized that I not only possessed several genuine pieces of e-scrap, but that I had a potential Chinese buyer for them, I could barely contain myself.

Below, a photo of my broken Canon printer, the printer’s power cord, the printer’s USB cord, and my broken Dell mouse.

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It is 100% illegal to import the broken printer and mouse into China. They are indisputably e-scrap – often known as high-tech trash – and the Chinese government has long recognized that the methods currently employed in China to recycle these materials are hazardous and polluting. Thus, they were banned for import several years ago – a fact capped by the fact that China is also signatory to international agreements prohibiting the import or export of such materials. The two cables are quasi-legal to import into China. I say quasi-legal because the two devices have a copper content that probably falls below 50% (any scrap dealers out there with an opinion on the cu?), and by Chinese law, the content has to be well over 90%. But that law has been mostly ignored for years – and old cables are now one of the most sought after, and imported, scrap items in China.

Anyway, the question arises: If it is illegal for an American scrap processor to export these materials to China, is there any hope for a resident American scrap journalist who wants to recycle these materials in Shanghai?

Yes, dear reader, there is. Below my apartment building, just outside of the gate, a middle-aged couple recently set up a thriving scrap business that – so far as I can tell – is mostly devoted to trading in materials generated on my block. Last week I noticed the couple purchasing an old computer, and just a few days ago I saw them buying several old VCRs. So, I figured, they must be interested in buying my old e-scrap.

This afternoon I gathered everything in a box, and stuffed a bunch of old magazines into a plastic bag (that held my new printer accessories when I purchased them from Best Buy Shanghai), then set off down the elevator and dropped everything at the foot of the female partner in the couple that runs the aforementioned scrap business. Below, you’ll see her weighing my old magazines, which turned out to be worth RMB3 (US$.40) at today’s market price.

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Then came the e-scrap. My strategy was to ask for a separate price for each component in my load – after all, the cables are still perfectly functional, and she could certainly get a fair price on the re-use market for them. Alas, she was no fool, and she quickly offered me RMB 5 (US$.66) for the entire batch of equipment – cables, broken printer, broken mouse. I fought. I argued. And I conceded.

Let’s face it: she knew full well that I was not bringing that stuff back into my apartment.

But I digress. In return for my RMB 5, I asked that she tell me where she planned to sell the printer. Her answer was quite specific – a Shanghai-area plastics recycler – and believable. As to what the plastics recycler will do with the electronic components within the printer, she couldn’t say. My guess is that they will be shipped to a site outside of Shanghai, where they’ll be thoroughly stripped for copper, re-usable chips, and precious metals. The processing “methods” will be hazardous – though not nearly as hazardous as the ones used even five years ago – and the lives of the people doing the work will be shortened.

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For those who wonder whether China has an environmentally sound method of recycling e-scrap (that is, could I have found a better recycler) – the answer is no. Such recyclers simply don’t exist in China. But the good news is that segments of the government and the private sector are working hard on this problem, and I suspect that a fairly good system will be in place within a decade. It is desperately needed: according to my sources, China currently has more than 1.5 billion televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, PCs, and air-conditioners currently in use (the five main categories of e-waste), with 120 million becoming “waste” each year (mobile phones are another category, though no reliable statistics currently exist on them).

How China deals with this flood of waste is a question of international importance, and one that I will be dealing with in print over the next year. Stay tuned.

13 thoughts on “E-Scrap in China: A Personal Perspective

  1. 8 RMB for the lot? More than the price of two large bottles of Tsingdao draft from the local supermarket. Not even in Minnesota could you get such a good deal.

  2. While I have been a reader of your scrap articles for many years, and enjoy your insights and perspectives, I object to your antiquated use of the term “first world”. Could you please make a habit of referring to developed and developing nations and leave the derogatory references where they belong – in the last century?

  3. Adam, your points are hard to argue, and I am not trying to make an exuse for anyone emporter that does ship these types of items into China, but the responsibility still rests in the hands of the importers which are governed by the Chinese government. It is a tough burden to bare to be responsible for an importer that wants to buy items that can kill him and his government turning a blind eye until it becomes a larger issue.
    All of this being said, I do agree with the principles of Basel and support the mitigation of these types of scrap being shipped to China simply as a dumping ground. The first thing that needs to change is the Taiwanese, Honganese and Neuvo Riche (check spelling)Chinese need to stop pushing all sides to ignore the regulations and more importantly the dangers and stop proliferating this quandery.
    P.S. Adam, I know you were fishing for a responce to this blog. You “pitched” out a real slow curve ball on this one and are waiting for someone to swing at it. I guess I am a sucker for this pitch, but you already knew that,

    Finally, can you install a spellcheck on this blog so my spekking doesnt make me look my more of an idiot than I am?

  4. I am new to the scrap industry, but I enjoy your articles. I came across a reference to your Web site today in an online AMM article. I will now check your site on a regular basis. I enjoy your distinctive writing style and how you discuss issues that are not brought up in the usual industry publications. Keep up the good work!

  5. Randy -

    We mostly agree on this stuff, but I still think that the exporters (US, European, Japanese) need to think more about the consequences of the business. They don’t get a free pass just because the material is easily imported into China. Although, to be fair, it’s getting much, much more difficult (and expensive). There has been a serious drop-off over the last few years, no question.

    Anyway, part of that real slow curve ball was a hope that you could give me an estimate on the cu content in those two cables pictured in the post. I’m guessing 30%?

    Talk to you shortly …

  6. Adam,
    The power cord could be over 40%, but the other cord is likely to be below 30% copper. That being said, all of the plastic is also fully recyclable.

  7. Pingback: Shanghai Scrap » Blog Archive » Greenpeace Gone Wild.

  8. Demetrios -

    Did you bother to read any of the content on this site? If you did, you would know that I am a writer and journalist – and NOT a scrap buyer. In either case, the fact that you posted your question to a post concerning e-scrap suggests to me that you and your company are interested in exporting e-scrap to China. If that’s the case, let me remind you that doing so is a violation of both Chinese and international law. As you ponder this, let me humbly suggest that you take a look at my recent post regarding scrap solicitations to this site, found here.

    Adam Minter

  9. I’d like to see you cite the law that you states makes it illegal to send e-scrap to China for processing. USC???
    As Professor Kingsfield would say: “Cite the law!”

  10. J. Landon Reynolds:

    China ratitified the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Shipment of Hazardous Waste in 1991. So, by international law, hazardous materials – including e-waste – were banned for import into China as of then.

    As for Chinese domestic law – On April 1, 1996, China’s State Council issued the country’s first law on solid waste materials, roughly translated as “Law on Prevention of Environment Pollution Caused by Solid Waste Materials.” Articles 24 and 25 of that law prohibit the import of solid wastes into China – except for those which can be used as raw materials. In conjunction, the China’s EPA published a list of materials which could be used as raw materials. But it did not include a list of prohibited materials – and thus, there was some “wiggle-room” on e-scrap, refrigerators, etc. Importers could argue that computer scrap fell under one or another category on the approved list — even though the intention of the law was to prohibit materials like e-scrap.

    On December 23, 2001, the Chinese government issued five notices on solid wastes prohibited from entering China. The fifth notice – issued on July 3, 2002 – was the first to specifically include waste mechanical and electrical products, including computers, televisions/monitors, etc.

    I’ve met several e-scrap exporters from the US who like to tell me the same thing – that is, it’s not illegal under US law to export e-scrap to China. Which is true. The problem is – it IS illegal to mislabel shipping manifests. But the only way to actually get e-scrap into China is by mis-labeling shipping manifests and/or working with a freight forwarder and/or importer who takes care of the bribes and paperwork for the exporter.

    A question for you, J Langon Hughes – do you know any e-scrap shippers willing to show the US Justice Department and US Customs copies of their shipping manifests in conjunction with their shipments to China?

    I didn’t think so.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  11. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer and former environemental official who is disgusted with Western ‘throwaway’ mentality. While working conditions in China and other countries I have visited are poor, I am not sure I see the difference whether they are recycling or assembling the new items. I visited several Chinese factories a few years ago which were buying USA monitors and turning them into new TVs (photos at my blog) and I would defy anyone who walked inside the plant to know whether it was a recycling plant or a new monitor assembly plant. The factories have largely been shut down in China, not because they are importing waste, but because they are importing good, working items… and the CCP owns the factories which manufacture the NEW CRTs. So they consider importing used ones to be ‘dumping’ in the trade sense of the term. Anyway, you seem to be a bright guy. I would encourage you while you are there to look into MINING and EXTRACTION OF RAW MATERIALS in China. Everyone is writing about what it looks like to recycle a used USA auto battery, no one is visiting the lead mine or virgin smelter. Google around for lead zinc smelters in China (zinc extraction is an indicator it is a primary or mining smelter, not a recycled smelter). Recycling is good and the Chinese will soon have e-scrap recycling plants as modern and efficient as the new electronics assembly plants. Like the monitor-TV factories they shut down, causing more lead mining for more ‘new’ CRTs to be assembled in plants that are identical to the ones you doubt exist (“the answer is no”)

  12. Robin – Thanks for your comment, and your very good site. I’ll visit again. Anyway, just a quick note to remind you that this post was written in July 2007; since then, I’ve spent a fairly significant amount of time in Linyi, Shandong Province, where the federal gov’t is making fairly serious efforts and investments in e-scrap and CRT processing. I published some of that reporting in Scrap Magazine this Spring, and I’ve referenced it in a few posts on my blog. See these:

    http://shanghaiscrap.com/?p=766
    http://shanghaiscrap.com/?p=602

    And a CRT graveyard, here:

    http://shanghaiscrap.com/?p=488

    I’m not sure what you mean by the sharp comment at the end of your post, but perhaps I should clarify to say that “the answer is no” in re to CRT recycling facilities on par with the ones, say in Japan. Re-manufacturing is a whole different issue. Anyway, this is splitting hairs — I think we have similar sentiments on these issues.

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