Keeping E-Waste at bay

China imposes restrictions on electronic junk imports

Published: Monday 15 July 2002

In a swift move, China has clamped down on toxic electronic waste exports from the US. Environmental groups Basel Action Network (Ban) and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition of the US and Delhi-based Toxics Link had earlier this year jointly brought out a report stating that as much as 80 per cent of electronic waste from the US was being shipped to Asia (see Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 21, March 31, 2002). China has announced curbs on the import of e-waste after the report sparked off an outcry in the country's press.

The list of restricted items will include television sets, computers, photostat machines, video cameras and telephones, according to a statement from the Chinese State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). To prevent China from becoming a dumping ground for electronic junk, the local police will step up their vigil to check "the smuggling of dangerous wastes", SEPA said.

It has been revealed in the Chinese media that children are being employed to smash up computers, and local water supplies are being poisoned by toxic waste. Visitors to villages near Guiyu town in Guangdong province have witnessed how printed circuit boards and other junk are "cooked" over open fires to extract precious metals.

Though the new measure does not amount to a complete ban -- SEPA appears to have left a loophole by stating that if "proper methods" are used, the environment need not be harmed -- yet it is seen as an important step forward. However, what's good news for China could be bad news for regions in India and Pakistan where the report mentions that conditions are even worse.

"In Pakistan, circuit boards are de-soldered with blow-torches in the absence of ventilation fans, and acid operations take place indoors with no proper airing. In India the open burning of circuit boards in New Delhi's residential areas is routine, as is the use of child labour," says the report.

Like any other trade, the e-waste business seeks the line of easiest penetration and lowest labour costs. Jim Puckett of Ban says, "The Basel Convention (of 1989, extended in 1994) has in fact enacted a hazardous waste export ban from rich to poor countries precisely because export curbs appropriately place the onus on countries responsible for producing the waste."

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