Cash for Trash: E-Waste Disposal and Management in China by Big Green Alliance
Imagine an app that recycles your old phones, fights #globalwarming and pays you to boot! Well, we built it in China.
China had 1.2 billion mobile phone users at the end of 2013.
Imagine 1.2 billion discarded mobile phones in a dystopian landfill somewhere, leaching chemicals into the soil and releasing green-house-gases even as another billion phones replace them in the hands of consumers. The hazards and complexities of recycling motherboards and circuits mean much of China’s 3.62 millon tonnes e-waste ends up in landfills.
Shrinking product lifespans and growing use of electronic goods means that e-waste is a rapidly-proliferating source of GHGs. Failure to recycle these complex goods also means that new products have to be created from scratch, at a significant GHG emission cost.
Baidu Recycle is a mobile app developed by the UNDP-Baidu Big Data Laboratory, pooling resources to address what we feel is one of China’s growing pains.
Baidu Recycle employs a model similar to that of Uber taxi app by connecting those in need of a service with those who provide it. In this case, individuals wanting to dispose of old electronic goods are connected to service vendors with specialist facilities to safely recycle these goods and the dangerous chemicals they contain. It’s so simple, its almost low-tech. Users take a photo on the app, and recycling services respond with a bid for their approximate scrap value. The user can then request an e-waste pickup service for safe recycling.
Version 1.0 of the app was launched in late 2014 and is currently available in Beijing and Tianjin; in less than a year it has arranged for the safe recycling of over 4,500 items. Our proposal now is to release version 2.0 featuring more recycling service providers and nationwide coverage, as well as improved functionality to allow users and service providers to publicly rate each other to incentivise good practice. As well as improving the app, we want to raise its profile to attract more users and influence policy development; recognition by the MIT Climate CoLab would be an excellent help in this respect.
Category of the action
Reducing emissions from waste management
What actions do you propose?
Baidu Recycle is currently being piloted in Beijing and Tianjin – two major cities in China. Users there are able to photograph their e-waste using the app to determine the name, category and scrap value of that item before being put in touch with a professional recycling company who will arrange pickup of the item and payment of the scrap fee.
We now want to take it to the next level – by expanding to other cities.
The areas served by the app will be expanded through contracts with more e-waste recycling service providers, who meet standards enforced and monitored by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
The proposed approach for this expanded recruitment is two-pronged: first, Baidu and UNDP will approach major actors in the industry to solicit their participation alongside TCL (a Chinese electronic company with strong system for e-waste disposal). In particular, UNDP is planning to use its convening power to organise a major event that brings the actors together, building on our exisiting work of reaching out to them through our advocacy work. There are plans to eventually coalesce this network into a formalised “E-waste Alliance”. Second, the partners will use their networks and campaigning capacity to attract e-waste collectors from the unregulated grey industry (including street collectors) to use the app. For instance we are currently talking to big private sector companies including Lenovo and Haier to join the alliance to pilot an incentive mechanism, in which these retailers offer coupons to customers who use the app for responsible recycling to purchase new electronic appliance, and in return the retailers will share a portion of the profit they earn with the individual collectors. The app also helps consumers make more informed choices by raising their awareness and thereby all these adding up to attract a larger number of e-waste collectors to participate in the app. These informal collectors will then be provided with professional training by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and responsible institutions to teach them safe practices and enable them to receive the accreditation needed to fully participate in the scheme.
User appeal of the app will be improved by the release of an updated version 2.0, which will provide two interfaces – one for customers to solicit a request online who wish their old home appliances removed and another for individual certified e-waste collectors to gather and process the order. Baidu Recycle 2.0 will also build a closed-loop feedback system where a two-way reputation system will be established for both the customers and individual e-waste collectors. This will allow both to rate their experiences, incentivising good practice by both consumer and service provider. This, in conjunction with the introduction of competing collection services should drive up service quality and scrap value, further improving user appeal.
The UNDP-Baidu Big Data Lab will also compile data produced by the app and, once a significant dataset has been amassed, begin analysis. There are a number of exciting potential research questions that can be addressed using this data. For instance:
• Which electronic goods are most widely recycled, and which require further targeting to encourage recycling?
• Do certain demographic groups recycle more than others?
• Which geographical areas are in need of better recycling facilities?
• Does recycling become an ingrained habit (i.e. a behavior likely to repeat itself automatically) or is persistent external influence required to maintain good consumer practice?
• What kind of incentives (e.g. high scrap value vs. convenience) work best to encourage recycling?
This is of course by no means an exhaustive list. Analysis by the Lab will be used to drive improvement of the app. Moreover, UNDP’s role as a policy advisor to government will also allow lessons derived from this analysis to feed into China’s national policymaking process – potentially by informing legislation for the safe disposal of e-waste.
Who will take these actions?
Baidu Recycle was jointly developed by the UNDP-Baidu Big Data Lab, an initiative created by UNDP China and Baidu. The Lab is a cooperative effort to use the data and resources at Baidu’s disposal to develop initiatives that contribute to UNDP’s mandate to advance human development, including combating climate change for a more sustainable and inhabitable Earth.
In this partnership, Baidu provides technical expertise and development facilities. It handles the software design and creation of the app, as well as advertising the app through its own branded outlets.
UNDP contributes project guidance, creative input to the innovation design process and overall strategic direction. It also uses its domestic profile and international standing to promote the app and attract partners, and apply lessons learned from the app experience to influence policy development.
The Chinese government the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) is also involved in the process as the e-waste issue cannot be solved by one actor. MEP is responsible for setting and monitoring the enforcement of standards for safe e-waste disposal. It is agreed that every service provider involved in the scheme is provided with the necessary training and accredited by MEP. This oversight provides the regulation needed to control the market forces which usefully drive Baidu Recycle 2.0 but could also incentivise corner-cutting to maximise profits.
Thiis proposal is to incorporate more participation from a greater diversity of actors in the e-waste industry, from street collectors to professionals.
To ensure that the app does not promote a ‘race to the bottom’ mentality, traditional e-waste collectors will also be brought to the fold, following the user-centered design principle, to better understand their perspectives and identify incentives that can further be incorporated to attract more and more recyclers to participate in the training and accreditation process.
Where will these actions be taken?
Both UNDP China and Baidu have their offices in Beijing, China.
The app is targeted at consumers of electronic goods in China, the world’s most populous nation and the second largest producer of electronic waste (United Nations Development Programme 2015). At present, the app can be used online by anyone with a smartphone capable of accessing the internet and equipped with a camera. However, the infrastructure to arrange collection and recycling only exists at present in Beijing and Tianjin, two cities in North-East China with a combined population of around 28 million people.
The proposed actions would support development of the collection and recycling infrastructure across the rest of China, covering a population of some 1.4 billion people, who purchased 58.1 million refrigerators, 53.0 million washing machines, 94.8 million air conditioners, 73.9 million computers and 250 million mobile phones in 2011 (United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace 2013).
There is also the potential for this initiative to be replicated in other countries. UNDP has a very strong track record in rapid prototyping and testing, piloting, scaling and then facilitating knowledge and technology transfer into other applicable contexts, through our network of over 170 Country Offices coordinated by 5 Regional Bureaus and HQ in New York. There is strong potential for Baidu Recycle to be adapted in this manner, should it gain sufficient exposure and traction across China – as is confidently expected.
What are other key benefits?
As well as reducing the climate-change impacts of dumping e-waste into landfills, this project produces environmental benefits by reducing the release of pollutants into the ecosystem that are harmful to humans and the environment alike. These pollutants include lead, mercury, arsenic, selenium, cobalt and cadmium.
Improper e-waste disposal can expose individuals to these chemicals during disposal, but also affect larger populations through the water system and food chain. Children are often employed in informal e-waste disposal.
The proposal also carries non-environmental benefits. First, by allowing people to scrap their e-waste for cash rather than simply throw it away will provide them with additional income.
Second, including a multiplicity of service-providing actors into the e-waste industry will foster more general market development, for a more efficient service supply chain and the ability for small business to expand their customer base at minimal cost.
How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?
Baidu Recycle 2.0 is expected to achieve the following pollutant emissions reductions each year:
- Approximately 5,000 tons of plastics containing brominated flame retardants, now disposed of or recycled safely within Stockholm Convention guidelines.
- Approximately 5,000 tons of lead-containing cathode-ray tube (CRT) funnel glass, now disposed of or recycled safely.
And emissions produced by the incineration of e-waste will conform to regulations for emission control on hazardous waste incineration.
It is estimated that the reduction achieved each year is equivalent to around 200 mg Toxic Equivalence dioxins.
GHG emissions reductions are harder to estimate given the number of variables involved in landfill GHG release and in industry production of electrical goods. However, in addition to the direct impact that this initiative will have on GHG emissions, it will also be a contribution to our big picture objective of encouraging the Chinese industry to go green.
What are the proposal’s costs?
With regard to side effects, Baidu Recycle will have a slight negative economic impact in the short term on the livelihoods of those currently engaged in improper e-waste disposal. However, a realistic forecast of the time it would take to take this proposal to replace all e-waste discarding with proper recycling allows plenty of scope for these people to find new business opportunities as the market changes.
It is hoped that Baidu Recycle will stimulate a general shift in the industry towards safer and more ecologically-sound practice, incentivising more actors to become formally trained and accredited in safe e-waste management by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Moreover, the health benefits these people stand to gain from reduced exposure to hazardous chemicals as well as society-wide environmental improvements make this risk a calculatedly-worthwhile one.
The UNDP-Baidu Big Data Lab currently operates on a pro bono basis and so has no associated costs beyond the resource-cost to both organisations in terms of human resources and capital.
Baidu possesses significant in-house advertising capacity through its substantial online platforms and UNDP is able to leverage pro bono print and digital advertising as well as media presence. However, the initiative is run with no financial input from UNDP as there are no appropriate funds that can be allocated. Therefore, any significant outreach activities of the kind needed to promote this initiative effectively need to source funding – it is hoped that the MIT Climate CoLab Award could be such a source.
Baidu Recycle 1.0 was released in August 2014.
The software for Baidu Recycle 2.0 is currently under development and should be complete in early Q3 2015. Concurrently, service providers are being approached to join TCL as recycling partners in the app, and an outreach strategy is under formulation to also attract smaller, non-corporate collection partners to join the app. UNDP and Baidu already have a well-oiled communications facility to promote Baidu Recycle 2.0 to the general public ahead of its launch and a concrete campaign will enter the planning stage once a firm date has been set for the update’s release, slated for Q4 2015.
Beyond the release of version 2.0, a persistent, targeted supporting campaign will drive popular uptake of the app. This will continue throughout 2016 at least.
Data analysis will commence once a sufficient dataset has developed; Q2 2016 is the present forecast for this.
Once the app has been fully rolled-out across China and in operation for some time, a feasibility survey will commence to identify which aspects of the initiative are best-suited to replication abroad, in tandem with a scoping study to find potential transplant locations. This is tentatively expected to take place in late 2016/ early 2017.
Baidu Recycle 1.0 in the media
‘Baidu Recycle not only demonstrates the technology and competitive edge of using Baidu Search and Light App in corporate philanthropy and solving global problems, it also shows how Baidu’s open platform can provide substantial support to welfare causes like environmental protection.’
‘Baidu Recycle is built on the efficiency and convenience of Internet services. It is significant that the app helps to explore a new path for a low-power mode of e-waste recycling industry and to promote the development of recycling economy.’
‘Baidu Recycle demonstrates the determination of Chinese enterprises to solve global development issues through collecting and analysing big data concerning e-waste, applying effective information and knowledge in society, promoting the development of e-waste recycling industry and providing a policy reference for solving e-waste recycling problems around the world.’
Chinese Business News
‘The Ministry of Environmental Protection has expressed great acknowledgement and support for Baidu Recycle. Jia Feng, director-general of Center for Environmental Education and Communications of Ministry of Environmental Protection, said: “This is Baidu’s milestone of using big data to solve environmental problems. It provides new solutions for recycling e-waste.”’
The Beijing News
‘The web app is intended to help streamline the recycling process and cut down on “informal recycling stations” where uncredited entities reclaim precious metals from electronic equipment but then dispose of the toxic materials incorrectly, causing severe ground and water pollution.’
United Nations Development Programme, 2015. E-waste Recycling and Disposal and Low Carbon Development, Beijing.
United Nations Environment Programme, 2010. Waste and Climate Change: Global Trends and Strategy Framework, Paris.
United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace, 2013. E-waste in China: A Country Report, Tokyo.