China’s odd e-recycling moves

In a strange twist on recycling initiatives, a music site is reporting that over a million unsold copies of the musician Robbie Williams’ latest album will be used to pave roads in China. The star’s record label, EMI, apparently confirmed that they are planning to crush the RUDEBOX cds and ship them off to be used in road surfacing projects. Apparently it’s an effort on EMI’s part to cut costs as the beleaguered recording industry attempts to rethink its business plan. 

This anecdote is an odd side effect of recording companies’ suffering profits, but also fits into a context of a recent spate of attention to Chinese use of recycled goods as the country goes through its protracted building boom.

Recycling in China has never been a pretty picture. A vivid story in the Telegraph, published in December, describes the town of Guiyu as the place “where presents—game consoles, laptops, mobile phones—come to die.” Scrapyards are so polluted that children regularly fall ill as a million tons of electronics are broken apart, melted down over coal fires and washed in acid on a daily basis. This is in spite of several regulations that ban the export of e-waste to China.

There’s another interesting angle to the story of China’s toxic e-recycling towns: According to a Wall Street Journal story, some of the lead turning up in Chinese-made products originated from that high-tech recycled garbage. Once lead has been stripped from the junk, it can be resold, through a number of middlemen, and used as a component in solder in new products—thus beginning its journey back to consumers worldwide.

But there’s hope. There have been a number of electronics recycling initiatives announced so far in China in 2008. The Shanghai government, for one, has unveiled a land reclamation plan to build a “City in the Sea” that will use recycled building materials in its construction. Of course, any moderate skeptic will raise an eyebrow at such an ocean-unfriendly endeavor, but hey, at least the use of recycled materials is part of the plan. Shanghai’s construction explosion produces 37,000 tons of building waste a day, or 30 percent of the city’s total solid waste. City officials suggest that the island will be finished in about 15 years and may rely on wind or tidal power for energy.

Separately, Fuji Xerox announced an integrated recycling system in Suzhou, on the lower Yangtze, with an annual capacity to dismantle and dispose of 500,000 printer cartridges and 15,000 photocopiers and printers, to be broken down into steel, glass and copper. Panasonic is considering opening a Chinese recycling center. And Hong Kong is also pushing forward with an aggressive new e-waste recycling program.


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