Monday, February 16, 2009


The junk man cometh: But he won't recycle
Created: 2009-2-16
Author:Wu Jiayin

IT is unfortunate that qualified e-garbage recycling and treatment companies in Shanghai have to struggle for survival by trying to win business from illegal e-garbage treatment factories.

Among them is Shanghai Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Recycling Center, a company specializing in WEEE trading, classification and disposal.

Founded in 2004 and opened to business in late 2006, it's hard for the company to persuade companies and individuals in the city to donate their e-garbage, said General Manager Yang Guixing, in an interview with Shanghai Daily.

An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 tons of used electronic devices are disposed of each year in Shanghai, yet only 3,000 tons were treated by the company last year, only one-tenth of its treatment capacity.

Most discarded electronic devices were collected by individuals who travel about neighborhoods collecting e-garbage and then selling it to illegal e-garbage treatment factories.

Individual collectors usually offer from several yuan to several hundred yuan, depending on the condition of the device.

By contrast, qualified e-garbage recycling companies rarely pay and sometimes even charge for the e-devices to be treated.

The reason individual e-trash collectors pay a higher price is that illegal e-trash treatment factories pay them a premium. They refurbish and resell the devices at second-hand markets.

They may separate the valuable metals and hazardous heavy metals and sell them separately - the separation process is usually done with poor-quality equipment and technology.

Around 100 grams of gold can be separated from one ton of used mobile phone batteries, compared with a few or several tens of grams of gold that can be separated from ordinary gold ores, according to a report by China Business News last December.

Printed circuit boards also have a rich metal content: copper, gold, aluminum, and so on.

By selling the extracted heavy metals and throwing away worthless residues, the illegal e-garbage companies are highly profitable.

Yet the improper treatment of e-garbage residues containing highly polluting elements can seriously damage the environment.

The cadmium in one mobile phone battery is enough to pollute three standard-size swimming pools, experts say.

Other common toxic elements like lead, mercury, chromium and so on can cause great harm to the environment and human health if they are not properly treated and are discharged directly into the environment.

For a qualified company, however, "the cost of collecting, disassembling, as well as rendering e-garbage harmless is high," said Yang.

The company invested more than 15 million yuan (US$2.2 million) in equipment to treat e-trash. The cost has yet to be recovered and does not include cost of factory construction, labor and so on.

To compete with individual e-rubbish collectors and prevent further loss, the Shanghai WEEE Recycling Center is forced to pay companies that are about to junk a large amount of electronic devices, but it is still less than what individual collectors pay.

The company is considering individual e-garbage collectors as possible franchise holders.

However, the company's disadvantaged situation is unlikely to be dramatically improved without government's support.

"If the government could grant us some subsidies in recycling e-garbage, we would be able to offer higher prices than individual collectors so they would either join us or be forced out of the market,'' said Yang.

More practical laws and regulations are needed.

Since February 2008 companies that illegally dispose of e-trash can face fines from 50,000-100,000 yuan.

But vague definition of e-garbage makes enforcement difficult: companies that illegally dispose of e-rubbish can argue they are only trading second-hand electronic devices rather than e-garbage.

The situation is expected to improve if the State Council approves Regulations on the Management of Recycling and Treatment of Used or Waste from Household Appliances and Electronic Equipment this year as expected.

A draft says that producers of electronic devices, wholesalers and after-sales service organizations are responsible for recycling used e-devices or e-garbage and using qualified treatment factories.

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