With volumes increasing with 20% each year, e-waste is now the fastest growing type of waste in the world. China is the distribution center of 70% of global e-waste and a big e-waste production and consumption country. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, China now produces about 2 million tons of e-waste annually. The amount of e-waste from computers, mobile phones, and other electronics is expected to exceed 27 million tons by 2030, growing at an average annual rate of 10.4%. Meanwhile, the value of recyclable metals in the circuit boards of discarded computers and mobile phones will reach 160 billion yuan.
What is e-waste?
E-waste is any electrical or electronic equipment that’s been discarded. This includes working and broken items that are thrown in the garbage or donated to a charity reseller. Often, if the item goes unsold in the store, it will be thrown away. E-waste is particularly dangerous due to toxic chemicals that naturally leach from the metals inside when buried.
E-waste covers a variety of different products that are thrown away after use.
Large household appliances, such as washing machines and electric stoves, are the most collected, making up more than half of all collected e-waste. This is followed by IT and telecommunications equipment (laptops, printers), consumer equipment and photovoltaic panels (video cameras, fluorescent lamps) and small household appliances (vacuum cleaners, toasters). All other categories, such as electrical tools and medical devices, together make up just 7.2% of the collected e-waste.
Many people do not dispose of electronics properly and thus, a large portion of electronic device end up in landfills. In 2018, only 20% percent of e-waste worldwide produced was documented, collected, recycled.
China’s e-waste market
Current statistics show that Asia produced 24.9 Mt in 2020 and thatChina is the world’s top e-waste producer, having generated 10.1 Mt of e-waste in 2019. China plays a key role in the global EEE industry for two primary reasons: it is the world’s most populous country, so the domestic demand of EEE is very high, and it has a strong EEE manufacturing industry. Additionally, China plays a significant role in the refurbishment, reuse, and recycling of e-waste. Driven by e-waste regulation and the facilities expansion, the formal e-waste recycling industry has shown considerable growth in treatment capacity and quality; more than 70 million e-waste units are dismantled annually . According to the Chinese government, the actual collection and recycling rate is 40%, but it is important to note that this number only refers to 5 EEE products, as opposed to the 54 EEE products (UNU-Keys) listed in the international e-waste classification.
The collection and recycling rate drops to 15% if all 54 products are considered. China has national legislation in force that regulates the collection and treatment of fourteen types of e-waste (i.e. five types, initially, and nine more were later added). However, informal sector activities still co-exist next to this advanced recycling system. Due to the many metals in e-waste, collection, dismantling, and recycling in the informal sector poses health hazards for collectors, children and others living near the activity sites. Fortunately the informal sector has been dramatically declining, due to stricter controls from China’s new environmental law. The illegal importation of e-waste disappears more expeditiously because of the solid waste ban import policy which was implemented in 2018. However, the increasing gap between fund levies and subsidies is imposing distinct challenges for e-waste funding policy. The Chinese Government has set targets of sourcing 20% of raw materials for new electronics products from recycled content and recycling 50% of electronic waste by 2025.
Chinese government has issued a number of relevant laws, regulations and technical guidance over the past decade. For example:
- Catalogue for Managing the Import of Wastes
- Technical Guidance on Pollution Prevention and Control of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment
- Regulation on Management of Prevention and Control of Pollution from Electronic and Information Products
- Administrative Measures on Pollution Prevention of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment
- Regulation on Management of the Recycling and Disposal of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment
With the support from the government, companies started their e-waste recycling tour in recent years. For example, Aihuishou and Baidu Recycle partnered with e-device producers and retailers to make the recycle more targeted and effective.
Next to this, the Chinese government also collaborates on national and international e-waste projects to help guide e-waste reform. A number of partnerships have established over the past decade, which brings in national and global expertise. So is there room for CN-EU collaboration in e-waste?
European policy on e-waste
The European Commission published the Circular Economy Action Plan in March 2020 labelled reducing e-waste as a priority for EU countries. In the European Union, there is a very well-developed compliant e-waste management infrastructure to collect e-waste in shops and municipalities by private operators, as well as to further recover the recyclable components of the collected e-waste and dispose residuals in a compliant and environmentally sound manner. This has been established by the relatively long-running history of EU e-waste legislation since early in 2003. Consequently, statistics show that 59% of the e-waste generated in Northern Europe and 54% of e-waste generated in Western Europe is documented as being formally recycled; the e-waste collection data was reported for 2017. Those are the highest percentages in the world. For the reference year 2019, 85% of e-waste generated, or 65% EEE POM of the three preceding years, has to be collected by a member state of the EU, which indicates that collection and recycling must increase even further to meet the collection targets.
Responding to the European policy measures, private initiatives in European member states have emerged which seek public-private cooperation to reach recycling targets. For example in the Netherlands the ‘OPEN Foundation’ (Organization for Producers’ Responsibility for E-Waste Netherlands) has emerged, which is a collective of more than 2.000 producers of white goods, ICT, audio and visual equipment, tools, fixtures and solar panels. The goal of this non-profit foundation is to meet the statutory collection target of 65 percent and to make e-waste circular. The existing innovative strength and collection, sorting and processing activities from the basis for the waste management structure. As per Dutch government decree, the OPEN foundation will take over the implementation of the legal producer responsibility in the Netherlands at the beginning of 2021.
Opportunities for CN-EU cooperation
While both public and private organizations on e-waste in both Europe and China have many challenges to address, there is great potential for cooperation from both sides. China’s governmental policy has been quite effective so far, but more cooperation with the private sector is needed to reach targets. European public-private initiatives can serve as an inspiration for similar projects in the Chinese sector. On the other hand, European initiatives can benefit greatly from the measuring and control systems the Chinese government has developed in recent years.
If we want to build back better, green and circular should remain a global target. With the newly signed Comprehensive Investment Agreement, China and Europe are very likely to have deeper cooperation on circular economy in the next few years. In this light cooperation on e-waste should be considered for any international projects being initiated, as it is not only a fast growing challenge, but also a source of great potential for both China and Europe.
Would you like to know what opportunities circular economy policy brings to your business in the coming years? In China or in the EU? Please do not hesitate to contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to discuss how we can leverage opportunity together!
 The regulated fourteen types of e-waste are: televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners, personal computers, range hoods, electric water-heaters, gas waterheaters, fax machines, mobile phones, single-machine telephones, printers, copiers, and monitors.