Geographies in Depth

Helping companies in China reduce and recycle 50% of e-waste by 2025, from smartphones to medical machinery

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Workers dismantle used television sets at a recycling plant in Neijiang, China Image: REUTERS/Stringer


A New Circular Vision for Electronics, Time for a Global Reboot

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We generate 53 million metric tonnes of e-waste each year. The World Economic Forum's Circular Electronics in China project is working to change that.

The impact of recycling e-waste.

When you upgrade to a new smartphone, can you be confident the technical components of the old phone are recycled?

Since 2017 the World Economic Forum has worked with partners to launch and deliver a multistakeholder project, Circular Electronics in China. The project was formed as a collaboration platform between industry, government and academia to reach the Chinese government’s ambitious circular economy targets of recycling 50% of e-waste by 2025 and including 20% of recycled content in new products.

In the past year, partners have undertaken research on mobile phones, data centre servers, and the remanufacturing of medical imaging equipment.

Workshops and seminars with technical teams at 13 companies in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Jiangmen have engaged manufacturers on how to increase the use of recycled materials in product design. Other sessions educated public health administrations and medical institutions on the renovation and remanufacturing of medical equipment.

The working groups’ research, including on the administrative difficulty of moving materials out of special economic zones for recycling, subsequently led to a change in policy, as part of the Chinese government’s drive to build a more circular economy.

For medical equipment and for data centres, for instance, there is strong commitment among stakeholders to take the work forward, including setting up a remanufacturing hub in Hainan province to extend the life of medical equipment.

In just a few short years, more than 30 Chinese and international companies have been connected with the project and are disseminating the findings of the research through training, education, and support, ensuring the project’s ambitious e-waste targets are achieved.

what is e-waste
Source: A New Circular Vision for Electronics, Time for a Global Reboot

What’s the challenge?

We recycle just 20% of the more than 53 million metric tonnes of e-waste generated globally each year, according to the Global E-waste Monitor.

This is a challenge and a missed opportunity. Experts estimate that materials in global e-waste are worth $62 billion per year. That value currently sits untapped in landfills.

Materials in e-waste – including copper, rare earths, and cobalt – could also be vital in the transition to renewable energy. In China alone, Forum research finds that 280 million end-of-life mobile phones enter people’s household drawers each year – not to be recycled. This material could find new life as a clean, green resource that reduces waste while tackling emissions.

Creating a system that can grasp this circular opportunity requires forging public private collaborations between governments, businesses and civil society. These stakeholders play important roles in shaping systems that eliminate waste and ensuring goods aren’t simply discarded once they are made and distributed.

To scale change, China’s participation and insight is especially vital from a manufacturing perspective. China is the centre of the world’s electronics supply chains, producing 70% of the world’s mobile phones.


Our approach to helping companies reduce and recycle e-waste.

The Circular Electronics in China project was launched in 2017 as part of the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Global Public Goods, along with partners Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and the Danish International Development Agency (Danida).

The project brought key stakeholders together from the public and private sectors to discuss the barriers to moving to a circular economy for electronics and undertook baseline research with China’s top technical University Tsinghua to better understand the current recycling system in the country.

Following this, the Forum created three working groups, each with a specific focus, to implement circular models for mobile phones, data centre servers and high-end medical imaging equipment.

Working groups were led in collaboration with the China Association of Circular Economy (CACE) and China National Resource Recycling Association. They also partnered with the biggest names in the industry, including: 360 Tong Cheng Bang, All Things Renew Group (Ai Hui Shou), DELL, GE, GEM, HPE, Huawei, Huirong, Huishoubao, JD, Oppo, Xiaomi, Philips, TES-AMM, Siemens, and United Imaging.

Each working group created a report which presented an industry strategy and set of policy recommendations for transitioning to a circular economy. The results were shared with decision makers in both business and policy.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

How can you get involved?

In 2020, PACE worked with more than 200 experts from over 100 organisations to develop action agendas for electronics, plastics, food, textiles and capital equipment. The working groups included representatives from developing countries, such as Ghana, Rwanda, Mexico and Colombia.

If your organization is working on circular economy approaches, the Forum invites you to share your interest to collaborate via these links.

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