Romancing with Electronics: Love, Loss and Recycling E-waste in China


Typical E-waste dismantling operation in Guiyu, China. Photo by baselactionnetwork, CC BY-ND 2.0

When I was a kid there was a black and white TV in my house – I vividly remember the good times I spent by that TV, watching cartoons and shows that made me happy and informed my perceptions and knowledge about the world.  This TV became my best friend until one day my parents brought home a big, new color TV. I wasn’t thrilled at first, as I was concerned about what would happen to my old friend – my father simply said someone would take care of it. One day an old man came to our house and took it away, and I said goodbye to my first TV. It was always a mystery to me where my old friend went – until I saw this picture in a newspaper.

China’s large population that is an increasingly upwardly mobile and growing with consumption habits that are equally large. According to a recent report, in 2011 Chinese consumers purchased 56.6 million televisions, 58.1 million refrigerators, 53.0 million washing machines, 94.8 million air conditioners and 73.9 million computers, in addition to 250 million mobile phones. In the same year 3.62 million tonnes of these products were discarded.

Why is E-Waste Harmful?

Electronic waste, or E-Waste, if not disposed of correctly, can be highly toxic and environmentally damaging.

Whole towns in China are dedicated to breaking down much of the world’s discarded electronics, and as a result these towns have become the electronic graveyards of the world, leading to harmful and toxic environments. 

Hundreds of thousands of electronics end up in landfills or burned, seeping into groundwater, contaminating soil, and indirectly entering the food chain. Research indicates such toxins adversely affect the human nervous, respiratory, and reproductive systems. 

Helping You Help the Environment

 Screenshot of Baidu Recycle

Now as a staff member at UNDP China I am part of a team working to try to deal with the many dimensions of the e-waste problem. What prevents users (consumers) from recycling? What prevents retailers from being certified? What are potential incentives we should be considering? At UNDP, we adopt the social innovation approach which brings the perspectives from the users to the core of the design of any innovation. So we worked together with Chinese Internet giant Baidu to create an innovative online solution: “Baidu Recycle” – an app that helps you recycle.

Users can take a photo of their obsolete electronic appliances and the system automatically identifies the type of e-waste and estimated price. When users enter contact information, qualified dismantling companies receive a message and arrange door-to-door pick-up. Recycling has never been so easy!

Launched on August 18 2014, the app was prototyped and tested in Beijing and Tianjin and until mid-2015, it has successfully recycled more than 11,000 electronic items, 78% of which are computers, TV and washing machines.

Despite our initial success, we realized that we needed to improve the interface and function, and also the eco-system behind the app. On 18 August, 2015, we launched Baidu Recycle 2.0.  

The most important feature we developed was to have two different interfaces, one for individual users and the other for recyclers. For recyclers, the version 2.0 applies the Uber model of competing for orders to ensure service quality and cost-savings.

Among other improvements, the app also expands coverage to all major cities and categorical types to 16 e-products. It also allows Baidu and UNDP to generate more data and evidence for effective decision-making and e-waste management.

As for the whereabouts of my old childhood friend, I’m always haunted by a picture in my mind: it lies in an e-waste mountain leaching chemicals into the soil. My hope is that one day all e-waste will come to rest in a better place and not be destructive to the planet. In China that future is well on its way to become a reality. 


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