The Digital Dump: Navigating China’s Informal Market of Electronic Waste

| Timmy Davenport | March 29, 2020 |

Unsustainable waste production in the modern global context is a crisis of pandemic proportions. E-waste is a particular type of waste that covers digital devices such as cell phones, televisions, computers, and essentially any other device that plugs into an outlet. Since these products are composed of plastics and other man-made materials, the natural decomposition of these products takes multiple millennia in landfills. High global demand from consumers for these devices made from non-biodegradable materials has set up an international dilemma over the most efficient way to dispose of their waste. The growing transboundary trade of e-waste has created a boom of informal recycling centers because certain materials from this waste can be resold for profit.

This sector of waste management can best be seen in China, who is currently the largest producer and importer of e-waste. Over the past four decades, China has imported over 350 million tons of e-waste. This market establishes a dynamic balancing act between job creation and economic opportunity, as well as the profound health and environmental hazards that come with working in the e-waste dismantling process. The cyclical nature of new digital technology has created an accumulation of e-waste products that are older, yet still functioning. This accumulation of e-waste has led China to begin weighing the tradeoffs associated with importing waste from developed nations with the environmental degradation that subsequently occurs. The extraction process provides a reliable source of income for some of China’s poorest families, which in turn fuels economic growth.

As a result of the powerful negative externalities that waste collection imposes on a community, Chinese President Xi Jinping has shifted the country’s legislative agenda to ban the imports of waste. President Xi aims to erase the global perception that China is an open dumping ground for the world’s trash. Since the development of this policy is relatively recent, gauging the effectiveness and long-term projections is difficult due to a lack of statistical data. Yet, the fact that the largest importer of e-waste is now refusing imports has developed nations like the United States searching for new options for disposing of e-waste.

China’s ban, however, falls short of its goals. Hong Kong is able to exploit loopholes in the ban that allow Hong Kong to import e-waste from other nations and subsequently resell the waste to informal recyclers in China without federal oversight from the mainland Chinese government. Hong Kong can reap the profits of permitting waste imports while not having to bear the environmental burden of the disposal process. An estimate by the Basel Action Network predicts that Hong Kong imports approximately 1,000 tons of e-waste daily with a portion being illegally exported to mainland China. This allows the informal e-waste recycling market of China to continue its practices despite the ban being in place. There is a unity among the two nations to stop the illegal trade of e-waste from happening; yet, due to differences in political ideologies between the two nations, there is a lack of resolve for how to effectively combat this issue. This discourse on oversight permits Hong Kong e-waste exporters to misuse international waste management efforts for personal profit. However, it is this informal market which these exporters sell to that is essential in understanding the consequences and benefits of global e-waste trade.

An employee examines electronic waste awaiting to be dismantled at the Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) plant in Holliston, Mass., USA. ERI is R2 and e-Stewards certified. Courtesy of Zoran Milich and Getty Images.

These recyclers are primarily self-employed or work for illegitimate businesses. The majority of e-waste processing takes place in informal sectors, but information on this underground industry is limited due to the difficulties associated with identifying practices of undocumented businesses. Working in China as an extractor in the informal market can earn upwards of $500 a month (3). (Workers are typically paid by how much material they are able to extract or sort rather than an hourly wage) (3) . While $500 may not seem like a lot, this is a substantial opportunity for rural unskilled Chinese laborers who would otherwise be living in poverty. Rural laborers are given the opportunity to provide income for their families and potentially escape poverty. As a result, the labor market for recyclers is growing at an uncapped rate to meet the substantial supply of e-waste material. China holds to benefit from this informal sector as the wages laborers earn naturally circulate back into the Chinese economy. Thanks to the loophole from Hong Kong, this labor market has not been disturbed despite China’s national ban. Nevertheless, there are still costs that come with working in the extraction process of e-waste materials that pose a threat to both the laborer and surrounding communities.

Dismantling non-biodegradable materials pose health hazards to workers if ill-equipped. In the informal extraction sector for e-waste materials, workers use little to no personal protection against the toxic substances they are exposed to when breaking into digital devices. Lead, arsenic, and mercury are just a few chemical compounds commonly found in electronic material such as laptops and cellular phones. When workers develop a prolonged exposure to these substances by handling them every day, chronic diseases like cancers or respiratory complications can develop.

Not only are individual workers harmed in this process, but so are surrounding ecosystems. E-waste disposal has led to toxic material being dumped into nearby free-flowing bodies of water that are used as drinking sources. These toxic wastes also seep into the soil and threaten nearby agriculture. To this extent, it can be seen that the costs of e-waste recycling hold broader repercussions to the livelihoods of surrounding communities as well as to the laborers themselves.

The situation in China is just one example of the global e-waste management crisis. Informal e-waste markets around the world exemplify why sustainable action is needed to balance the demands of impoverished communities while providing safe working conditions. The global mismanagement of waste and its subsequent commodification devalues the long-term economic benefits of being environmentally conscious. Generating waste is an inevitable process especially when considering the comparative advantage of innovation, but expending the quality of life for others in this process does not have to be.

Timmy Davenport is a sophomore double majoring in Agricultural & Applied Economics and Microbiology. Timmy grew up in Farmington, CT and holds an interest in the relationship between developmental economics and public health.


1 Wong, Natalie W M. “Electronic Waste Governance under “One Country, Two Systems”: Hong Kong and Mainland China.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 15,11 2347. 24 Oct. 2018, doi:10.3390/ijerph15112347


2 Lee, Yen. “The World Is Scrambling Now That China Is Refusing To Be A Trash Dumping Ground.” CNBC. N.p., 2018. Web. 1 May 2019.


3 Minter, Adam, 1970-. Junkyard Planet : Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. New York, NY :Bloomsbury Press, 2013. Print.

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