The theme of China’s annual National People’s Congress taking place this week – the proceedings of which remain highly secretive beforehand – has been largely an economic one.
Although the environment is hardly the priority issue du jour, China has not entirely changed its course with regard to the environment, despite the economic turmoil, as a “worst case scenario” might have suggested. Legislation on the management of electronic waste, signed into effect this week by China’s cabinet, the State Council, is a key example of China’s continued commitment to making progress on environmental protection.
The new law mandates the establishment of centralized funding for enlargement and improvement of safe electronic recycling facilities in China. It also places responsibility on manufacturers, retailers, repair and customer service providers and recycling companies to collect and responsibly handle electronic waste; though the wording of the scope of their responsibility as well as punitive measures for noncompliance is vague.
These regulations aim to reduce a stream of pollution that builds each year. The problem of industrialized countries’ illegal exportation of e-waste on China and other developing countries has generated significant attention and debate in recent years, both inside and outside China. While advocacy groups like Greenpeace point fingers at the corporations for not taking efforts to control the disposal of their products or designing them with fewer toxic components, insufficient legislation and monitoring by both sending and receiving countries has exacerbated the problem.
Indeed, China passed a law banning e-waste imports in 2002, and most OECD countries have passed a similar ban, known as the Basel Convention, making e-waste exporting illegal.
Chinese Consumption, and Disposal, on the Rise
And yet, the problem persists. This is due in no small part to the fact that changing consumption habits in China produce more e-waste domestically than ever before. Rising income levels combined with quality improvements in China’s electronic goods industry encourage a culture of disposability, where regular replacement of TVs, mobile phones, and MP3 players has become more of a norm. Every year over 15 million electronic goods, including 5 million TVs, 5 million washing machines, and 4 million refrigerators are disposed in China alone. China’s National Statistical Bureau expects e-waste to grow 5-10% annually.
While it is too early to tell how the majority of manufacturers will receive the law, one private company is prepared for the regulatory challenge. Television manufacturer Changhong, based in China’s western province of Sichuan, is hoping to open the nation’s largest TV recycling facility. It has already used 6 million RMB (USD 882,000) in private and public funding to develop the necessary equipment for a plant expected to open by early this year. Municipal officials in Beijing have likewise already taken efforts to stem the waste. According to a Chinese government website, the city has set up a network of recycling centers capable of safely dismantling 1.2 million appliances per year.
For an overview of the regulations’ scope and specifics written by Charlie McElwee, an international energy & environmental lawyer based in Shanghai, check out China Environmental Law.
Photo Credit: art_es_anna on Flickr Commons