Responsa: E-Waste, Keeping Our Own?

Jingshun Road
Watching all of the workers return from holiday
1518 hrs.

Spenser left a comment on an earlier Hutong post about processes that are being developed for managing the growing piles of discarded electronics and computers.

I mentioned in the note that China’s rust belt northeast would be a logical place to seed China’s own recycling/demanufacturing/remanufacturing and other environment-related sectors.

Spenser correctly noted that it would be silly – and wasteful – to set up such facilities in China and ship our waste there.

He’s right, so I should clarify my point.

No way should America move its e-waste to China – the idea is to recycle the e-waste near source, then transport the resulting raw materials to wherever they should go. This ensures the best use of energy in the process, and also keeps third-world countries from getting the impression (correct or not) that we are exporting our garbage to them. Doing so tends to piss off the natives and trash our global relationships. (No pun intended.)

At the same time, I am profoundly aware of the NIMBY factor in all of this, and the possibility that a highly motivated group of people in the US or Europe could discover some implicit dangers (real, speculative, or imagined) to having such processing take place in one’s neighborhood. If that happens, electronics recycling will wind up someplace else.

Naturally, this would be a shame, not only because it would waste energy and turn other countries into our garbage dumps, but because such activity could be far better regulated in the US, and location in developed economies would not only drive innovation in process, it would ensure the fastest diffusion of those innovations through the recycling industry.

(Indeed, I think this will be a driver for manufacturers toward “design-for-recycling” and “design-for-remanufacture.)

All of that said, I still see recycling, demanufacturing, and remanufacturing as major potential industries for Asia generally and China specifically, if for no other reason than Asia is a major consumer of electronics in its own right, thus a growing source of e-waste. As the pile of discarded mobile phones, computers, televisions, and the like expands here, the case to process it grows as well.

After all, nobody wants to see containers of Asian e-waste landing at U.S. ports, either, now do they?


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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