China receives pollution from both ends of the supply chain: during production process and by allowing electronic waste to be recycled and dumped in the country. Large amounts of foreign e-waste, mostly from the developed Western world, have been imported into China since the 1970s. Cheaper labor and lax environmental standards attracted e-waste from developed countries that could save much of the cost of processing the waste domestically. By 2000, China was the largest importer of e-waste in the world. Although the Chinese government enacted a ban on the import of waste in 2002, much of the world's e-waste is still smuggled in via illegal channels, often through Hong Kong or Southeast Asia.
China’s domestic contribution of e-waste is also substantial. China in 2012 was the world's second largest producer of electronic waste, generating 229.66 million units, compared to the 32.99 million units generated in 2001. China is now the second largest e-waste producer in the world after the US, creating up to 6.1 million tons per year. This amount is expected to continue rising with China’s economic development, technical innovation, and urbanization as more electronics are created and consumed, and disposed.
The major sources of e-waste processed in China are households, domestic institutions, such as schools, hospitals, and government agencies and businesses, and equipment manufacturers.
This e-waste is usually channeled through: second-hand markets where reusable devices can be re-sold at reasonable prices, (illegal) donation systems that send used home appliances to poorer rural areas of western China, or through peddlers who re-sell e-wastes to dealers. The third channel is the most common form of e-waste management in China, which creates a massive informal sector.
Most of this e-waste is sent to recycling sites in order to extract precious metals and organic materials to be resold for economic value. The most common form of e-waste treatment used in China is the “physical/mechanical method” that separates the difference elements in each electronic device through manual dismantling and chemical separation. This often involves rudimentary practices, such as heating circuit boards, cutting cables and wires, chipping and melting plastics, and extracting precious metals through acid leaching and incineration. These operations, such as strong acid leaching and the open burning of heavy materials, have resulted in the release of toxic metals and pollutants.
The majority of e-waste recycling in China takes place illegally within the informal sector. The informal sector is constructed of a system of small-scaled, often family-run workshops and “backyard” recycling sectors. It is generally run by peddlers traveling door-to-door offering marginal fees for disposal of obsolescent appliances. These peddlers then resell these devices to e-waste dealers. The informal recycling method consists mainly of manual, unskilled labor and is inherently mobile. Informal recycling operations also commonly occur in suburban areas where they lack effective enforcement and control.
A main concern around the informal sector is that most peddlers and dealers lack knowledge and access to adequate equipment and technologies for safe e-waste disposal. Studies measured higher potential health risks from heavy metals at informal e-waste recycling sites than in formal recycling sites, such as those operating in Jiangsu and Shanghai. Nonetheless, it is a very profitable market in China thanks to low wages, high demand for used electronics, used parts and materials.
While there have been centralized efforts to mitigate these risks through formalizing the e-waste management sector, the informal sector still dominates the e-waste collection system.
Most e-waste recycling sites in China lack the appropriate facilities to safeguard environmental and human health. This results in the leaking of massive amounts of toxic chemicals, such as mercury, lead, and cadmium. Without the proper methods and necessary safety precautions, e-waste is directly responsible for deteriorating health and environment in China's e-waste hotspots.
Residents in major e-waste recycling sites face a potential higher daily intake of heavy metal. Residents are exposed to the hazardous e-waste remnants though inhalation from air, dietary intake, soil/dust ingestion and skin contact. This has created serious health risks for people in these regions. Studies have also found greater soil and groundwater contamination in e-waste processing sites, as well as a higher cancer incidence. Special concern has been risen for children, as their potential health risk was measured to be 8 times that for adult e-waste workers due to their smaller size and higher ingestion rate.
The main region where the e-waste is shipped to is the Guangdong province, situated along China's south east coast. From there it is spreading to other regions such as Zhejiang, Shanghai, Tianjin, Hunan, Fujian and Shandong. All of these regions are located along China's entire east coast. Guiyu in Guangdong Province is the location of the largest electronic waste site on earth.
Most of China’s informal recycling sectors are limited to regions along the southeastern coast of China. From there it is spreading to other regions such as Zhejiang, Shanghai, Tianjin, Hunan, Fujian and Shandong for processing. All of these regions are located along China's entire east coast. E-waste disposal operations frequently occur in the suburban areas, due to the lack of effective enforcement and control.
Guiyu in Guangdong Province is the location of the largest electronic waste site on earth. The town has up to 5,000 workshops treating up to 70 percent of the world’s e-waste, and employing around 100,000 people; electronic waste lines most of the streets and reports indicate that the smell of burning metal and plastic are constantly in the air. The disposal sites recycle 15,000 tons of e-waste on a daily basis. Over 80 per cent of the town’s residents make a living off of manually disassembling and disposing e-waste full-time. The residents of Guiyu are known to have the highest reported level of lead and dioxin found in people globally. These high dioxin levels also result in much higher miscarriage rates for women that are pregnant and reports show that over 70 percent of children have high lead levels in their bloodstreams.
The Taizhou region of the Zhejiang province is also a major e-waste recycling center. Taizhou’s residents are especially vulnerable to the contamination of their large agricultural sector caused by the e-waste sector. Taizhou has been a major site for soil and sediment pollution by toxins generated from e-waste disposal. Residents of Taizhou also have a high dietary intake of heavy metals through rice, vegetable, and water consumption. In 2012, their average intake of heavy metals was 3.7 mg/(day$kg bw), exceeding the FAO tolerable daily intake of 3.6 mg/day$kg bw.
In 1992, the United Nations Basel Convention was established to control the transboundary movement and disposal of hazardous waste.  It provided the first comprehensive global environmental agreement on hazardous wastes and acknowledged e-waste as within the scope of environmental protection and cross-border trade. The general obligation proposed by the convention is that states exporting hazardous wastes must do so in an environmentally sound manner for the state of import and that they respect the policies of any country that prohibits imports as a whole. Currently, 176 states, including China, have ratified the convention. China signed the Basel Convention in 1990.
Furthermore, an extension of the convention, the Basel Ban Amendment specifically bans members of the OECD from exporting e-waste to non-OECD, which includes China.
A variety of environmental legislations and programs have been issued by the Chinese government in order to regulate the electronic product production and e-waste management sectors.
In 2008, the Ministry of Environmental Protection passed a set of administrative rules requiring all e-waste treatment enterprises to pass an environmental impact assessment and obtain official licenses to continue operations. The Chinese State Council also mandated the recycling of electronics by the consumer and required all other unnecessary materials discarded in the manufacturing process to also be recycled.
In 2011, the Collection and Treatment Decree on Wastes of Electric and Electronic Equipment strengthened national standards for the e-waste treatment sector, setting minimum annual treatment capacities for formal e-waste treatment enterprises. These new set of laws also required treatment plants to adopt pollution prevention principles during the entire disposal process in order to minimize negative environmental impacts.
In 2012, China adopted the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system from the EU, which held manufacturers responsible for the collection and recycling of electronics. Otherwise known as “Producer Takeback,” the EPR management system requires manufacturers to carry out environmentally safe management of their products even after they are discarded. The Measure on Tax Levy and Use for E-waste Recycling was implemented on manufacturers to officially enact the EPR system.
Along with national legislation, several provincial programs have been set in place to address e-waste management issues in more urgent regions, such as the Guangdong, Qingdao, Beijing and the Sichuan provinces. Many of these programs have been aimed at controlling the informal sector and strengthening formal e-waste channels. Waste collections systems and storage points for e-waste have been created in villages with larger disposal sites. In the regions of Tianjin, Taicing, Ningbo, Taizhou and Zhangzhou, local recycling parks have been built in which informal laborers still work as manual recyclers, but under production and pollution management. In Guiyu, the government promoted technical upgrades in informal workshops by replacing coal-fired grills with electrical heaters that would reduce the amount of leaked toxins when treating circuit boards.
In June 2009, China initiated the "Home Appliance Old for New Rebate Program", which first launched in nine cities and provinces considered to be more economically developed. It restricted the collection of old appliances by accredited household appliance retailers. These authorized collectors would be able to pay consumers a higher price for their e-waste as well as compensate them with discount coupons for new devices. By April 2011, about 46.6 million old home electrical appliances were collected along with the sale of 45 million new ones. This initiative resulted in the rapid growth of the formal waste electronic and electric equipment recycling industry. It reduced e-waste recycling based on private individual collection, and increased collection by formal entities through large-scale delivery and rational distribution with a centralized and statistical information system.
In order to establish normative e-waste recycling network, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) designated Qingdao Haier, Hangzhou Dadi, Beijing Huaxing, and other companies, as the national e-waste collection and recycling pilot projects in 2004. These projects, along with the United Nations Environment Program were a failure due to the fact that they could not get adequate e-waste collected for efficient operations.
Many companies, like Nintendo, are aware of the problem of e-waste and are developing their own initiatives. Companies joined forces by creating a collective e-waste reclamation campaign. But that does not solve the whole problem.
China Mobile, Motorola, and Nokia collaborated in launching a recycling program where they look back used cellphones and electronic accessories. This “take-back,” or “Green Box” program safely collected about 20 tons of e-waste by 2009.
In response to low incentives some companies, like Dell, started to provide compensations to consumers in Beijing and Shanghai of US$0.15 for 1 kg of old computer. In order to receive the incentive consumers had to bring their used computers to local Dell stores at their own expense. The project failed because the financial gains of returning their computer to formal recyclers were lower than the gains from selling computers to informal collectors.
Though legislation and regulations have been accepted by the developed countries against illegal exportation of e-waste, the high number of illegal shipments continues exacerbate the e-waste problem in China. For instance, the members of the EU agreed not to transport any waste subject to the Basel Convention out of the EU or the OECD but illegal shipments are still rising in China and other developing countries. Greenpeace International claims that a large amount of e-waste is usually illegally shipped from Europe, the U.S. and Japan to China. One of the main incentives for them to export e-waste is that the cost of domestic e-waste disposal is higher than the exportation fees. Moreover, e-waste brokers make large profits from the trade and get paid twice: once for acquiring the e-waste, once for shipping it.
In China, informal collectors buy old electronic devices from consumers. The incentive to participate in collection systems, which cost them compared to informal recycling, is low, even though many Chinese consumers realize that it is important to recycle e-waste safely. As many as 90% of the consumers are reluctant to pay for e-waste recycling because there is still monetary value in the end-life of products. While electronic devices and waste are collected in different Chinese regions and impart various environmental and health problems on the area, many activists argue that the distributors and source countries are not being held significantly responsible. While international regulations have increased domestic recycling programs in these source countries (such as the United States), shipment of Electronic Waste has not completely been eradicated and remains a significant global issue.