Energy & Resources

Chuck it out

Can a ‘Recycling Supermarket’ solve one of China’s fastest growing problems?

Chuck it out

Booted up and booted out

At the Changhong factory in Mianyang, you can see the evolution of the firm’s television products – from the more basic models of the early eighties to the latest flatscreens.

Not everyone, however, has an interest in exhibiting their old electronics. For most people, the issue is more what to do with old televisions, laptops, even iPods, when they break, or need replacing.

China is no different, particularly after 15 years of rising consumerism. With the average lifespan of a TV reckoned to be eight years, and a PC clocking in at six, mountains of now defunct electronic products are piling up.

And not just in the richer cities. A survey by the college of Environmental Science and Engineering at Yangzhou University found that 61% of rural families in Jiangsu province had at least two broken televisions, and half had broken radios.

The city of Wuhan is taking a lead in addressing the problem. Hubei province’s first ‘E-waste Recycling Supermarket’ has just opened in the city’s Qingshan District. It will take old electrical appliances off citizen’s hands, and pay them Rmb2 per kilogram in exchange.

The supermarket’s boss, Xu Kaihua sees a bright future: “The metal content of electronic waste is many times higher than that in a mine. Upon recycling, e-waste is an inexhaustible urban mine.”

He calculates that by using modern methods, 1 tonne of dry batteries can be refined to gain 350kg of zinc oxide, 300kg of manganese ferro-alloys and 5kg of nickel alloys. He says that the total value of this haul is around Rmb2,000 ($292).

Xu told the People’s Daily that while recycling one tonne of batteries won’t make as much as mining a tonne of metal ores, “the mine will deplete in the end, while e-waste recycling is unlimited.” Xu says that within an hour of the store opening it received 170kg of electronic waste.

Xu’s company, Green Eco-Manufacture, is working in partnership with the local government, and will dispose of 19 different varieties of electrical applicances, ranging from DVD players to air-con units. The plan is to have 300 ‘supermarket’ outlets spread throughout the city within two years.

Xu says the company is also investing millionS to build central China’s largest e-waste treatment plant. The 25 acre facility will treat all waste mechanically, and avoid waste water discharge. To keep everyone focused, each workshop will implement camera surveillance allowing for supervision from the environmental protection department.

This last point is key. China’s government is keen to get the cowboys out of the electronic waste recycling business. New legislation has been passed which will fine firms between Rmb50,000 and Rmb500,000 if they tote their recycling credentials without the requisite licenses and equipment. The government is keen to promote bonafide recyclers like Fuji Xerox, which has opened a plant in Suzhou.

An example from Guiyu in Guangdong province explains why. Of the 1.5 tonnes of electronic waste dismantled per year, much has ended up dumped in local streams and canals, poisoning the groundwater. Greenpeace reports that 80% of Guiyu’s children have respiratory diseases and Shantou University says the town – nicknamed E-waste Village – has the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world.

The trouble, says Greenpeace, is that 21st century waste is being dealt with by 19th century means.

The new law – whose sanctions come into force in 2011 – will force small-time recyclers, who do much of their work by hand, out of business unless they upgrade their equipment.

The roadmap is clear. But in order to make a dent in the Himalayan heights of China’s electronic waste pile, the world must hope Xu Kaihua’s Wuhan supermarket chain works – and gets replicated across the country.

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