China's toxic informal e-waste recycling: Local approaches to a global environmental problem

Sabrina Orlins, Dabo Guan

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122 Citations (Scopus)


Electronic waste or e-waste has been an increasingly severe problem over the last decade, and is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. China's inexpensive labour and manufacturing abilities have already made it "the world's factory" and for e-waste recycling it is no exception. Informal workers do the majority of e-waste collection and recycling in cities throughout China. E-waste recycling work provides livelihoods for migrant workers and the urban poor and has formed a well-established shadow economy. The improper dismantling and burning of e-waste for resource recovery exposes workers to toxins and heavy metals, and causes severe air, water, and soil contamination. The illegal global trade of e-waste makes it a transboundary environmental governance problem of local and global scales. This paper investigates informal workers' knowledge of the environmental impacts of e-waste, perceptions of their work and whether they would be receptive to government regulation of recycling work. It finds that informal recyclers interviewed lack environmental awareness of the dangers related to e-waste recycling and are unwilling to be regulated due to fear of losing jobs and profits through regulation. Weak e-waste legislation and social marginalization are also major barriers to protecting e-waste recyclers and the environment. Through a scalar analysis of environmental governance, this paper proposes strengthening the roles of small enterprises and inclusion of Non Governmental Organization (NGOs) and Government Organized NGOS (GONGOs) to work in the informal sector to find safer recycling solutions to fill the large gap between legislation and de facto practices.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-80
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Cleaner Production
Issue number15
Early online date1 Jun 2015
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2016


  • Air pollution
  • China
  • E-waste
  • Environmental impacts
  • Informal worker
  • Soil contamination

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