The waste land

Recycling old electronics is a good idea, but it’s failing in China

The waste land

Screening the scrap

Planned obsolescence was first dreamed up back in the 1930s by American industrialists keen to sell more products. The objective? Goods that don’t last long, in style or durability terms. The idea caught on: by 1960, cultural critic Vance Packard was decrying “the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals.”

Vance sounds like he needed cheering up. But fast forward five decades and his point seems pressing. The purchase behaviour of hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers is about to go through the planned obsolescence experience.

And that means waste, with the must-have items of today on the fast-track for the rubbish dump. Much more waste is likely too, with government policy now pushing for rising domestic consumption (in a campaign to persuade Chinese to trade-in old products and buy new, 51 million home appliances were junked in the two years).

The plan is that recycling will help reduce the outflow of discarded items. But facilities are limited and recycling rules still poorly formed. Mandatory waste sorting, for example, is yet to be implemented.

At least the authorities are trying. Subsidies for electronics recyclers were first made available in 2008 and earlier this year new laws were passed requiring manufacturers to contribute more towards facilities at government-certified recyclers. Admittedly, it is unclear how the law will work in practice. But with the volumes of electronic appliances scrapped each year, it would seem that there should be a solid market for certified recyclers.

Some of the manufacturers seem to think so. Panasonic, Sumitomo and TCL have all announced plans to invest in new recycling joint ventures, National Business Daily reported this month.

It is a grand idea, and involvement from the larger manufacturers is probably going to be essential if it is going to work. That’s because the business is currently dominated by small-scale outfits who lack the scale to invest in game-changing programmes. “Bring your electrical appliances here,” one unlicensed recycler told Beijing Business Today last year. “They will be processed in the yard.” Reportedly, the main tools employed were wire-cutters and hammers.

TCL, on the other hand, has invested close to $44 million in its Tianjin recycling JV. However, it’s running at just a fifth of its planned capacity, according to NBD – due to competition from small scale ‘unlicensed’ recyclers.

Why? Mom-and-pops will sometimes pay more for scrap electronics, because their business model is to cherry-pick the items which have the most valuable metal contents. The ‘official’ recyclers are required to accept a much fuller range of appliances – even those that are far less lucrative to recycle. Coupled with their higher costs (thanks to their more high-tech environmental processes) this means the amount they can offer per item is lower.

Plus there is the convenience factor. “I always sell my old home appliances directly to small traders downstairs,” one Beijing resident confessed to the newspaper.

The trouble is that the smaller operators often ignore safety precautions when appliances are being broken up. “Some of these chemical compounds [released in the dismantling process] may be carcinogens,” Bernd Simoneit, co-author of a recent study on the practice told the Ecologist magazine.

This is a theme WiC has looked at before. Remember Guiyu (issue 8), which is nicknamed E-waste Village? Thanks to its small-scale recyclers, it has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins on the planet.

The bigger operators are hopeful that new rules (which will fine unlicensed recyclers) will gradually turn things around. “At first we were worried about [our] losses,” says Li Yongmei, an executive with one of the larger recyclers in Beijing, “but now we are optimistic about the industry’s prospects.”

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