A Brief Critical Commentary on the Formalization of the E-Waste Recycling Economy, in China and the World. An essay by Cristina A. Lucier and Brian J. Gareau

Environmental news in the latter half of 2015 has been characterized by an upsurge of discouraging stories worldwide, not least from China. Despite the recent slowdown in economic growth, there have been industrial accidents and unprecedented air quality issues plaguing the country. However, there is at least one local environmental story that appears to defy this bleak trend. In December of 2015, the highly polluted town of Guiyu was suddenly vacated, and all of the informal hazardous waste recycling that had been polluting the soil, the water, and the bodies of young children, came to a halt. Residents of Guiyu had previously made their living by recycling discarded electronics (or e-waste) in their homes and in their yards. In 2015, these workers were ordered by the government to move their operations into a new formalized industrial park equipped with ventilation and other safeguards. Cleanup of the waste site has slowly begun as workers are establishing themselves in the newly built industrial park (Standeart, 12/16/15).

As recently as last year, Guiyu had been one of the e-waste recycling capitals of the world, with massive volumes of discarded electronics from the United States and elsewhere flowing (illegally) into the city and being smashed, burned, and soaked in acid in order to recapture the valuable components for resale (Xing et al, 2009; Wong et al, 2007). Children of Guiyu were found to have some of the highest blood lead levels in the world. All of this went on, essentially unabated, for about 20 years. Suddenly, in 2015, it appears to have stopped. Why?

To be sure, falling commodity prices have provided some of the disincentive for workers to continue their illegal operations against government orders. But this is not explanation enough. Why have the Chinese authorities now decided to focus on stopping pollution resulting from hazardous waste imports, which were implicitly condoned or ignored for nearly two decades and at a time when the country has a plethora of potential environmental challenges to consider? A potential explanation for this about-face can be found by looking at the evolving economics and politics surrounding the global trade in hazardous wastes such as e-waste.

In the 1980’s through the early 2000’s, the transfer of hazardous wastes from OECD to non-OECD countries was cited by activists, scholars, and some policy makers as a clear manifestation of global environmental injustice (Pellow 2007). Wealthy countries enjoyed the benefits of modern production and consumption, while poorer countries were left to deal with the toxic byproducts. To help stop this environmental injustice, the Basel Convention on the Control of the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was created. This global environmental treaty quickly became the focal point for the international community to battle over whether the transfer of hazardous wastes from OECD to non-OECD countries should be banned altogether. In the mid 1990’s, a so-called “global ban” was unanimously adopted as an amendment to the Basel Convention. However, the amendment has remained contested ever since and has still not achieved the required number of country ratifications to become legally binding. Therefore, countries like China remained hotspots for global e-waste recycling.

While the American public was periodically made aware of the situation through creative activist campaigns or media exposés from Frontline or 60 Minutes, the U.S. Government was less than supportive, or was even sometimes openly hostile, toward any legally binding regulations to limit the transfer of hazardous wastes from wealthy to poor countries. The United States is one of the only countries (besides Haiti) to have signed but not ratified the Basel Convention. Although the U.S. is not a Party to the Convention, the existing Basel regime still prevents the U.S. from exporting many streams of hazardous wastes to Basel Parties without following certain procedures. Under U.S. law, however, electronic wastes have not even been regarded officially as hazardous. For years, shipping containers full of discarded electronics routinely left U.S. ports and ended up in cities like Guiyu where workers engaged in open burning of PVC-coated copper cables and the use of woks for acid leaching of precious metals from circuit boards (Puckett 2006).

Formalization of E-Waste: The Need for Critical Sociology

In recent years, this whole situation began to change. On the international level, there have been resolutions for Parties to find a way out of the regulatory stagnation on the Basel export ban (Lucier and Gareau 2014). At this point, the most likely solution is one that strongly favors the recycling industry, waste exporting countries, and non-OECD countries interested in recycling hazardous wastes. This proposed solution centers on removing the environmental justice- based “North/South” distinction from the Basel Convention’s export ban. Instead, proponents argue that countries should be able to ship hazardous wastes to any country that has demonstrated the capacity to manage them in an “environmentally sound manner” (i.e., in a factory with some safeguards as opposed to in a residential village or an open field) (Lucier and Gareau 2015).

In the case of e-waste, this would be beneficial for industry, as it allows them to establish economies of scale in countries where labor costs are lower and environmental regulations are not as strictly enforced (and where more and more of the world’s e-waste is being generated). This also benefits waste exporting and waste importing countries, as the valuable materials contained in e-waste would no longer fall out of the purview of the formal economy. In essence, capital and states have realized that the informal e-waste recycling economy was undercutting the ability to establish a formalized e-waste recycling infrastructure. Due to a convergence of factors, a formal e-waste recycling infrastructure has become a priority only recently. In brief, these factors include an increased volume of e-waste being generated within and outside of the OECD, an increased demand for consumer, business, and military electronics globally, and a fear over “critical shortages” of certain raw materials, such as rare earth elements.

So why was Guiyu, a ground zero of sorts for debates over global environmental injustice in the hazardous waste trade, suddenly vacated and its workers moved to a formalized industrial facility? The Chinese government has claimed a desire to crackdown on environmental issues such as illegal hazardous waste imports and illegal electronics dismantling and recycling. But it is important to keep in mind that behind seemingly beneficent measures such as these lie a complex array of vested interests focused on maximizing profits and ensuring privileged access to critical raw materials (Cf. Economy 2010). Whether workers will in fact be safer, or see any improvements in their standards of living as a result of these new formalized e-waste facilities remains a contested question. Based at least on recent reports concerning the safety of e-waste recycling facilities even in OECD countries such as the U.S., it is clear that risk of long-term exposure to heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium remains high while wages remain low, and we can expect the scenario to be worse in places like China (Ceballos et al, 2014; Ceballos, Gong and Page 2014). Thus, the task of activists must be expanded from exposing sites of informal or illegal e-waste recycling to also consider the health, wellbeing and safety of workers who are being brought into the rapidly growing formalized e-waste economy.


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