China E-Waste Policy: Past, Present, Near Future

Hoover halts TV sales pending "ewaste" recycling infrastructure?
Radio.  TV.  Telephone.  Computer.  Cell Phone.

China's modern history of communication devices includes a small chapter on "e-waste".   Here is an interesting link to a terrific website, TVHistory.TV, on the first 75 years of TV technology.  I hope to do a similar site with the history of "e-waste" policy.  It will include a day in the near future when China made ewaste imports legal...

Desperate for growth in the 1980s and 90s:   The Communist Party lost face as technical and economic development rocketed in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.  To catch up, they were willing to close one eye to pollution, toxins, etc.  Corner cutting occurred in all stages of production, from mining to quality to disposal... even capitalist investment by Taiwanese in Guangdong... Anything that made up the lost ground. And reuse and recycling, which had been a huge factor in the growth of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, etc., was welcome.

But what was to become the key to economic advancement across Asia was repair, refurbishment, knock-offs, and contract manufacturing:  Activities perhaps best described by Yuzo Takahashi in his treatise on Japanese economic development, "A Network of Tinkerers:  The Advent of the Radio and Television Industry in Japan".  Geeks of color, working in resource-poor nations, used their "yankee ingenuity" to add value to gadgets. When there's no gold to mine and no oil to pump, smart poor people produce value out of textbooks, schematics, and cerebral cortexes... fixing Stuff.

With a late start, but in hot pursuit of modern manufacturing which would serve communication infrastructure, China threw subsidies at TV manufacturing.  It was a clumsy game of catch-up ball, but it triggered angry protectionist sentiments in Europe, the USA, Mexico and other nations.  China was slapped with very high tariffs on Chinese CRTs in retaliation for "dumping" manufactured goods.  That's DUMPING in the free trade sense, when goods are sold below cost.  Japan, Korea and Taiwan reacted by getting out of CRTs - and into flat panel manufacturing.

Don't Shed On Me
In the early 2000s, Chinese contract manufacturers, who were also "tinkerers", operated on extremely thin margins as "assembly" labor shops.  They started replacing $110 new cathode ray tubes (minted by the Chinese virgin CRT factories) with $10 used monitor tubes from the USA.  This was HUGELY more profitable than straight assembly, and is a big case study of "grey market" production.   Monitor CRTs were good for 20 years, were typically replaced every 5 years in rich countries, and they were digital (higher dots per inch than a television tube, and able to translate any analog signal with the right converter board replacement).  Re-Manufacturing with 'gently used' CRTs saved $100 on a $150 TV or monitor (or combination thereof)... a tenfold profit.  China's government-owned virgin CRT factories, which mined, refined, and molded the new $110 cathode ray tubes, were infuriated to see their gigantic investment tariffed in the West, leapfrogged in Japan and Korea, and cut out of the equation in their southern Chinese (Taiwanese influenced) assembly factories.  They accused the west of selling (used) CRTs at artificially low prices - aka "dumping", in the WTO sense.

Meanwhile, a small non-profit organization in Seattle Washington, organized to promote ratification of an obscure 1980s treaty, connected American's guilt over upgrades to the baby boomer's "children starving in China" trauma.  Just as throwing my food away conjured images of hungry Chinese children, provided a poster child image to fit our guilt over upgrading (working and repairable) computer monitors.  The photos of poor villagers burning scrap further embarrassed Chinese officials.  But more importantly, it opened a way for China to block "second hand" goods (which it was distinctly disadvantaged in) and to protect their television manufacturing industries.. defining "dumping" in a new way, to enforce obsolescence.

The present:  A decade later, a factory in Shenzhen China has over 400,000 employees (in one campus), and makes every smart phone and tablet you can buy.  China has successfully followed the path of Japan.

The White Guilt Brain Cell Cluster
The "reverse of the paradox of plenty" (R. Ingenthron, 2009) has been as successful in China as it was in the "tinkering" Japanese economy described by Y. Takahashi.   The south of China, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Macau, and Foshan (Taiwan) followed free market tinkering, repair, refurbishment, knock-offs, and other "good enough" industries to make their own economies.   But the north of China, where the generals and party members ruled, went after very large deals to site very large factories... often in smoke-filled-room deals with western original equipment manufacturers, like IBM, which took Lenovo from 0 to 60 in four seconds.

What Japan did to radios, China has done to cell phones and laptops.  

Where does the future lead?  China will no longer fear the refurbishing market, but like the OEMs Vance Packard described, they may continue to disdain it.   They will still keep out "second hand" equipment, maintaining he irony that reuse is waste but shredding is not.  But watch for the term "GREEN WASTE", which China will start to apply to recycling materials they want and need.  This is way better than mining, and when it happens, get ready to applaud it.  This was inevitable.

But what clinches the deal is Japan's announced plans to go after e-waste as a new source of "rare earth metals" controlled recently by China's new mineral cartels.  China wants to control the rhodium, paladium, tantalum, yttrium, and other rare metals which are in the used electronics.  And lead solder won't stop them any more than mining pollution stops them from mining the same metals.  And it shouldn't... the dirtiest recycling is better than the cleanest metal mining. India, a huge metals engineering base, may follow suit.  [I found out that Preston beat me to the punch on this prediction in November]

This will happen soon, even sooner than China or India will become OECD.

And 50 years from now, the CBS 60 Minutes e-waste episode will look as cutting edge as the photo of Herbert Hoover at top, using the first high tech TVs to plan super important American Stuff.

It's a small part of the nation's economic history so I won't cover British heroin trade, mafia, great leaps forward, Deng, T. Skwear or Taipei.


Preston said...

Good extrapolation re: e-waste and recycling for rare earth metals.

I wrote a similar piece re: China:

josh said...

Hi Robin,
Adam Minter plugged your blog a while back and he's's an amazing primer on the ins and outs of e-waste. I an academic at USC working on China's recycling systems, and I'm really interested in the Chinese case you describe here of replacing newly manufactured CRTs with used monitor tubes. Any chance you could point me in a direction to find documents/ news articles on this turn of events?
In any case, i've become a devoted reader.

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

Thanks So Much Josh,
The use of USA monitor tubes to make TVs was big business from late 1990s to a couple of years ago. I don't know of any articles about it, there is a link to a Harvard Business Review article here in this post about them. I recently shared one of my secrets - Digitimes. If you go back to articles in 2000-2004, and read articles about Proview, BenQ, CTX, Wistron, Viewsonic, Foxconn, etc. you can find out a lot about what they were officially doing and then tease out of the numbers why small TV production was outpacing CRT tube manufacturing and why their profits were UP.

josh said...
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