The Shanghai Scrap e-waste Challenge

As regular readers may know, over the years I’ve spent a significant number of non-blogging hours investigating and reporting on the Chinese e-waste trade for trade and mainstream publications. For those who are not regular readers, e-waste can be broadly defined as waste computers, monitors, cell phones and other broken, obsolete, and unwanted artifacts from the information economy. Though safe when they’re on our desktops or in our hands, the means used to dispose of and/or recycle theses devices in China and other developing countries are not safe at all, but are rather dangerous to human health and the environment. For most of the last thirty years, developed countries have been the major sources of this material; but in the last five years, as China became the world’s second largest consumer of PCs and other electronic devices, the flood of domestically generated Chinese e-waste has overtaken what was once imported in large quantities, and begun to pose a considerable environmental risk.

This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed, both among China’s environmental officials, and among its private-sector recyclers. Over the last three years, in particular, both groups have been looking for solutions (economical ones that can compete with the environmentally ruinous methods of e-waste processing used in South China), and – reportedly – several very good pilot e-waste programs are running in China. Unfortunately, the companies and government units running these e-waste programs have not been willing to open them up to outside eyes (or, open them up for on-record review to journalists). And this is a pity for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that – so long as environmentally-sound e-waste recycling remains a secret in China – the environmentally un-sound methods will be the ones that are reported abroad, much to the detriment of the entire Chinese recycling industry.

Now, as it happens, I’ve been trying to get into some of these environmentally-sound e-waste processing centers for 18 months, now, but without success. So today I’m going to take a different approach. Above is a photo of the e-waste that I currently store in my Shanghai apartment. It includes: an old Dell laptop (worst computer I’ve ever owned), the Dell battery, the Dell powerpack; a Samsung mobile phone; a Nokia mobile phone; an old HP Ipaq; and a stack of old software CDs. I would like to see all of these items recycled in an environmentally sound manner, in China, and I am prepared to travel to do it. If you are a Chinese company capable of recycling any or all of these items in a manner that meets the standards of Chinese law, then I would like to write about you. Contact me here.

Here’s what I offer in return:

  1. A Shanghai Scrap blog post on how your company recycled my e-waste in an environmentally sound manner in China (Shanghai Scrap enjoys greater monthly circulation than all of the major recycling trade magazines, combined);
  2. The right to review the text to the blog post prior to publication;
  3. If the blog post is re-published by a recycling trade journals or any other publication, the right to review any of their edits prior to publication.

Here what I expect in return:

  1. A briefing and opportunity to view – in action – the process used to recycle my e-waste. Note: this process must include circuit board recycling (except in the case of the battery and the CDs) and, if it includes shredding, must also include a process for separating the shredded material. In other words: I want to see an environmentally-sound e-waste recycling process that ends in marketable commodities (of course, landfilling  and/or safe incineration of some waste materials is acceptable and expected).
  2. Transportation to and from your recycling facility, and, if necessary, one night’s lodging.
  3. The right to photograph the processes used to recycle my e-waste, without interference;
  4. And the right to choose which photos are posted to Shanghai Scrap (with reasonable exceptions made for trade secrets and intellectual property concerns).

My background as a reporter on these issues can be found here, and global recycling, in general, can be found here. If you have any questions about this Challenge, or would like to participate in it, you can reach me via this Contact Form.

And finally, a note to readers: despite the fact that I write this blog for free, I have never accepted payment or other compensation in exchange for posting information to Shanghai Scrap. Likewise, I have never before offered to allow an entity editorial control over a post on this blog (however, in a couple of cases I’ve submitted a blog post for fact-checking, only). In the case of this post, and whatever comes of it, I’ve chosen to offer my expenses and an editorial veto, due to two factors.

  1. I have been unable, after repeated requests, to obtain access to one of these facilities, in my role as a journalist covering the recycling industry. Much of the trouble has to do with the “sensitive nature” of the facilities in question. So, in hope of obtaining some insight into what I believe is an important story, I’m going to offer up my objectivity – and disclose the fact ahead of time, to my readers. Hopefully, the story that I obtain – if anybody responds – will make that move worthwhile.
  2. Shanghai Scrap is not my day job; my journalism is. What’s published on this site is done so at my expense and so, if I want to obtain a difficult story, I’m compelled to pay for it out of my pocket. Quite likely, this story will require travel outside of Shanghai. Since I can’t get this story under the normal rules of journalism (under which a publication will pay for the travel), I’m going to have to pay for it myself, or someone else will have to pay for it. I’d prefer the latter, with full disclosure.

9 thoughts on “The Shanghai Scrap e-waste Challenge

  1. Dream on. Do you really think the chinese ewaste processors are reading this blog or are going to let you in their doors?

  2. Cali Scrapper – In answer to your questions:

    1. Yes.
    2. I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.

  3. Very impressed that the photographer managed to sneak in the reflection of his bare feet in the photo.

  4. You should probably get this post translated into Chinese in order to improve your chances of getting a response.

  5. William – Indeed. It’s being distributed, in translation, through a different channel.

  6. I was travelling in Europe until this week, but would like to help you out with this if I can. Can you travel to Penang, Malaysia? The circuit boards are easy to do properly if you can afford the cash flow… what drives people to do the nasty aqua regia (which produces less income than Dowa in Japan or Beliden, Umicore, etc. refining) is that they cannot afford to wait to be paid until there is a shippable quantity. The LCD we are working on, if it’s not broken there are places in Guanzhou which make them into photo displays. The plastics I can send photos of operations in Guangdong and Ningbo. The batteries would probably go to China’s ARMCO…

  7. Robin –

    Thanks for the offer. I’m specifically looking for people who are recycling circuit boards in China. I know who the companies are – what I need is for them to let me through their doors. LCDs, plastics, etc – I’ve got that covered.

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