Chinese E-waste Legislation and Policies and Their Effectiveness

In 2000, the Chinese government introduced an official ban on importing e-waste into China via the Notification of the Import of the Seventh Category of Solid Waste (No. 19/2000). Since then further regulations targeting e-waste have been implemented in China, establishing the ‘polluter pays principle’, the ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’ approaches to e-waste, as well as aims to reduce the use of hazardous and toxic substances in electrical and electronic equipment (Wang et al. 2013, pp. 29-32).

In essence, the Chinese government has to tackle its e-waste problems in two key areas: 1) stopping the illegal import of e-waste into the country and, simultaneously, 2) fighting informal e-waste recycling activities and improving the formal e-waste recycling sector. With regard to the latter, in the last 10-12 years, the Chinese government has made great efforts to introduce advanced e-waste recycling technologies and waste management principles from Western countries. Nevertheless, attempts to formalize the Chinese e-waste recycling sector have proven to be very difficult and challenging (ILO 2012; Li 2012). Formal recycling and treatment facilities are not able to collect sufficient volumes of e-waste and cannot compete with the low costs of the informal processing sector. In becoming aware of such difficulties, the Chinese government has chosen an approach to incentivize informal recyclers to shift to formal processes and to divert e-waste volumes from the informal sector to the formal sector (ILO 2012). The changes to the Chinese economy, including increased employment opportunities and higher salaries, are also expected to reduce the role of the informal recycling sector. At the same time, the consumption of electrical and electronic products and, therefore, the volumes of domestically generated e-waste, are increasing, which has started to gradually transform China into an e-waste exporter to poorer countries, often African ones (Kennedy 2015).

In recent years, the Chinese government has also been stepping up its efforts to halt or reduce illegal e-waste imports. In 2013, China’s first major campaign Operation to Green Fence, which was launched to enforce its waste quality legislation, aimed to better control the containerized waste imports. Between February and November 2013,[1] Chinese environmental and custom officials undertook more robust and stringent inspections and physical checks of shipments of various types of wastes, including e-waste, plastic, paper, and textiles, primarily from Europe and North America coming into mainland China. As a result of the operation, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste have been rejected, and shipping companies were told to return these shipments to the sender. The import licences of many companies were suspended, and, according to the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), in the first three months of the campaign, 55 shipments were stopped and 7,600 tonnes of recyclable materials rejected, resulting in containers piling up in the ports (Earley 2013).

At the same time, a legal loophole that allows the illegal import of e-waste into mainland China to be facilitated via Hong Kong is often used by exporters. Even though Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, there is a legislative difference between the two countries and the ban on e-waste imports adopted in Chinese legislation does not apply in Hong Kong. Subsequently, second-hand electrical and electronic devices and e-waste can be imported into Hong Kong, and once they have been imported they can easily be transported to other countries, including mainland China (Yoshida 2005 quoted in Wang et al. 2013). Furthermore, illegal exports of e-waste to China often avoid detection by going through Taipei, Vietnam, or the Philippines from where e-waste is transhipped to smaller ports in China, where customs officers can be bribed by the exporters (ILO 2012; Wang et al. 2013).

  • [1] Even though the Chinese government has not confirmed this officially, Michael Lion, currentchairman of Sims Metal Management Asia Limited, in a seminar in New York in June 2015 saidthat Part II of the Operation Green Fence may be coming soon (LeBlanc 2015).
 
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