This afternoon an influential leader in China’s multi-billion dollar recycling industry gave strong indications that China will soon loosen its ban on the importation of waste electronic devices such as computer circuit boards. The import of such devices is a sensitive issue in China, particularly due to the intense foreign media interest on so-called “toxic villages” where these devices have long been smuggled and recycled in informal workshops.
In prepared marks delivered at an industry conference attended in Ningbo, China, Wang Gongmin, the chairman of China’s Non-Ferrous Metals Recycling Association asked that the ban on imported waste circuit boards be lifted. CMRA has close government ties, and often consults with government in Beijing and China’s provinces on the recycling industry and laws related to it. Wang, meanwhile, was part of a team of three who drafted language on solid wastes for the 11th Five Year Plan, and he was a leader of the expanded team that prepared language for the upcoming 12th Five Year Plan. The new plan does not call for lifting the ban, but rather speaks in general principles and policy goals. Wang’s speech, however, was quite specific. Below, the official English translation provided to attendees:
We will add to the variety of and expand the scale of imported scrap metals. On the one hand, scrap home appliance, circuit board scraps, [and] scrapped cars are all valuable renewable resources. On the other hand, recycling technology has matured, and the processing shall not result in secondary pollution. But those products are all on the list of prohibited goods. It is suggested that relevant departments should make policies to approve the import of such products.
Attending Wang’s speech were leading officials from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Commerce, Customs, and AQSIQ.
In 2010, China began the roll-out of a long-delayed program to funnel domestically generated electronic waste to trusted, environmentally-sound recyclers. Among industry observers, it has long been assumed that a successful domestically-run recycling program would ultimately pave the way for China to lift its ban on imports. Today’s announcement was much earlier than many expected, especially due to the fact that there are still many questions and problems to be answered with the Chinese domestic program.
Wang announcement also suggests that at least some officials in China are reconsidering the country’s commitment to the Basel Convention on Transboundary Wastes, a 1989 treaty that prohibits the export of hazardous wastes to developing countries. In developed countries, the processes used to recycle circuit board scrap and other hazardous materials are expensive, but relatively safe. In recent years, China’s nascent e-recycling industry has imported and modified some of these processes on a trial basis, and with greater and lesser success, in anticipation of the 2010 domestic recycling program. Though no breakthroughs have been reported, it is undeniably the case that developed world e-recycling methods can be utilized in China for smaller costs and greater profit. On background, some Chinese recycling industry figures argue that circuit boards cannot be considered hazardous – and thus, not subject to Basel – if they’re exported to China and recycled using means demanded by Western environmentalists.