Lost in Translation or Just Regional Dialects?
By Russ Martin, President of the Global Product Stewardship Council
Since returning recently from the Electronics Recycling Asia event in Guangzhou, China, and site visits in China and Hong Kong, I’ve been mulling over how best to compare and contrast electronics recycling programs in the region with those I’ve seen elsewhere in the world. Something may get lost in translation when comparing practices in developing countries against those that are more developed, but it’s important to understand these comparisons and avoid applying a strictly “developed world” mentality.
Chinese characters can have at least four different pronunciations, depending on the context, and even native speakers can have difficulties with regional dialects. One has to wonder how the translators were providing complicated speeches to us simultaneously in such a coherent manner. Still, the international nature of recycling and product policy shone through, as did potential room for common ground.
We had participants from over 25 countries discussing electronics recycling, rare earth metals, collection and processing approaches, and a range of other issues.
Still, we could agree on the French phrasing for “extended producer responsibility”, but not on comparable phrasing in various languages for “product stewardship”. When one considers that we still debate such distinctions in English, perhaps this isn’t so surprising.
There was strong multi-national support both in presentations and side discussions about the need to ensure high recycling standards and equally strong uncertainty about how best to ensure the strongest enforcement and consistency.
At facilities in Guangdong Province and in Hong Kong, I saw electronic processing that ranged from manual sort of rough-sized plastics from TVs and computer monitors to hotwire separation of CRT screens. A facility in Hong Kong that used shipping containers as building blocks handled an extensive range of electronics (imported mainly from the US).
It’s difficult to judge how representative some the programs we saw actually were. Still, the workers were wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and I didn’t see unsafe practices during the visits. If workers are kept safe and they are able to earn a decent wage, perhaps it’s best not to be too judgmental. We regularly highlight the importance of tailoring practices to local circumstances, so this wasn’t that much different.
Manual disassembly I saw in China and Hong Kong is roughly comparable to some of the manual processes I’ve seen in Canada and Australia, some places just had shipping containers for walls instead of concrete.
Manual processes can achieve can higher material recovery rates than shredding, and proponents highlight that humans can be taught to set out some materials for which it is difficult to get mechanical separation. Besides, there are certainly employment aspects to consider in developing countries with large and burgeoning populations.
Discussions around decision-making, policy development and scale were certainly in sharp contrast. Without delving too far into geopolitics, it was rightfully pointed out that China WEEE (a regulatory approach for recycling of electronics) has been around since 2005, while Australia and New Zealand are only just starting to roll out product stewardship programs for some electronics, mainly TVs and computers (Australia has had a voluntary program for mobile phone collections since 1998).
Multiple sources agreed that the Chinese government understands the impacts and need to address pollution issues. If the government devotes nearly the same dedication to addressing pollution that they devote to massive infrastructure projects, we should see changes on a similarly massive scale.
In contrast, decentralisation could prove problematic for product stewardship in China. Around 95% of recycling in China occurs via the informal sector, which may make organised product stewardship difficult, if not impossible to implement. An organised stewardship effort could find it difficult to find significant volumes for recycling unless they effectively tap into the efforts of potentially millions of Chinese collecting for the informal sector.
There will be a continuing need to further turn people away from practices such as burning, acid leaching and dumping that still take place (reportedly at lower levels than in the past, but still prevalent). Raising awareness of, and purchasing recovered materials from, the more responsible recyclers in the region is already starting to drive changes, but the general lack of information about such reprocessors and recyclers is a limiting factor. Stronger relationships and commercial ties will need to be built, but there seems to be agreement on the need to do so.
Rather than feeling that recycling practices are lost in translation, perhaps we’re just seeing the equivalent of regional dialects that require a little extra education or awareness to understand fully. There is hope, we just need to continue bridging different cultures and learning from each other.
Detailed analyses from the site visits will be made available to GlobalPSC members once they have been peer-reviewed.