Waste Recycling the Green Way

By staff reporter DANG XIAOFEI

There has been a major environmental change in Ziya, between the metropolises of Beijing and Tianjin. The town used to suffer heavy pollution from local recycling industry. The soil became deadly to crops and water was too toxic to drink.

Now Ziya has been revolutionized into a pollution-free economy. Waste products – computers, televisions, cars – are cleanly and efficiently recycled for their valuable components. Ziya has become a spring of resources and attracted locals back to live there again.

Reborn from Polluting Workshops

Yuan Zhezhong used to grow fruit trees in a small village on the outskirts of Ziya. A decade ago, his orchards were so poisoned by the polluted soil that he cut down all the trees. But four years ago, he contracted 0.2 hectare of land and resumed his old career.

“I was not willing to cut down those trees, but the pollution from burning wires was so bad that they couldn’t bear fruit.” Burning wires refers to the primitive recycling operations in Ziya in which waste electrical wire and appliances were burned to reclaim the metals inside. As the process had high profits and low entry costs, many villagers turned to this business, manually breaking up waste appliances and melting certain parts for traces of precious metals. This crude salvaging process polluted the groundwater and contaminated the soil.

Today people still subsist by disassembling electric waste but the methods have been transformed. Ziya has established an industrial park of circular economy – the largest of its kind in northern China, providing the market with reclaimed copper, aluminum, iron, and rubber materials with little pollution.

“Ziya used to be under the sea, so the local land has high saline and alkali levels and consequently low yields,” explained Tang Guilan, vice chief of the industrial park’s Administration Committee. “As farming in this area was not developed, people had to make fireworks and reclaim waste for a living. Later the fireworks workshops, which were very shabby and prone to accidents, were closed by the local government, so people could only survive on reclamation.”

“In the 1980s and 90s, the recycling businesses in the town were all family-based, and the workers were barely trained and poorly equipped. Electric wires and fine cables, some thinner than a human hair, were hard to disassemble by hand. A machine that could do this would cost hundreds of thousands of RMB. So the locals found their own way to do it: they set fire to and burned it all.”

At the time 80 to 90 percent of local farmers were making a living by burning electronic scraps to get copper and other metals from it. The noxious effects on the environment and human health soon became evident: trees and waters were covered in a slimy layer of dark dust all year round, and the local population suffered a high rate of lung cancer.

It was not a realistic solution to kick the disassembling industry out of town, as the sector accounted for 60 percent or more of Ziya’s economy. “We wanted to keep this industry, but we were determined to transform it,” Ziya magistrate Du Guozhi said.

The first step was to integrate the 800 or more individual household workshops into 80 larger companies and move them into an area assigned by the town government for industrial productions, which was expanded into Ziya Circular Economy Industrial Park in 2001.

This industrial park, with a planned space of 135 square kilometers, is the largest of its kind in northern China. It has large areas set aside for manufacturing, forestry, scientific research and living facilities, all in line with the model of modern circular economy. With the focus on recycling used machinery, electronics and cars, processing rubber, fine and deep processing of products, environmental protection technologies and new energy, the area fosters an industrial system that is regenerative, effecient, environment- and people-friendly.

“Now most residents in neighboring villages work in this industrial park. They do different reclamation jobs for RMB 3,000 to RMB 4,000 per month. Those with a better educational background earn a management salary of RMB 7,000 to RMB 8,000,” Mrs. Tang said.

“The area is also building a new town to accomodate 16,000 people from the nine villages nearby. They will be offered employment opportunities, schools, houses, insurance and pensions with long-term benefits,” Tang added.

From Wasteland to Land of Plenty

At the TCL-AOBO Environmental Protection and Development Co. waste electrical items such as old refrigerators, TV sets, and computers are disassembled, sorted, and treated with chemical solvent. The whole process, including eventual disposal of industrial waste, is done by an automated assembly line, without noise or pollution, producing reprocessed plastic, glass, gold, silver, copper, and aluminum.

According to Wang Wenhua, secretary of TCL-AOBO’s general manager, the company has an annual processing capacity of 2.4 million machines. Its 18 internationally advanced disassembling lines can retrieve the highest possible volume of recycable materials out of electronic scraps, as well as clean up the waste produced in the process.

TCL-AOBO is one of the 231 companies that had moved into Ziya’s Circular Economy Industrial Park by the end of 2013. All of them have adopted a zero-emissions, non-polluting model.

Now, the park can disassemble and process 150 tons of waste every year, providing the market with 450, 000 tons of copper, 250,000 tons of aluminum, 300,000 tons of iron, 300,000 tons of rubber and plastic, and 200,000 tons of other materials. Its annual production of reclaimed copper equals the output of a large copper mine.

Compared to mining raw resources, recycling waste saves 5.24 million tons of standard coal and 1.8 million tons of petroleum per year. The process also reduces emissions of carbon dioxide by 1.66 million tons and sulfur dioxide by 100,000 tons.

“In the industrial park, the recycling rate of electric waste is almost 100 percent, with household appliances and cars reaching 90 to 92 percent,” Tang Guilan added.

In its earlier years, Ziya did little more than strip down and sort old electric gadgets and machines. Now it has extended into upstream industries such as fine and deep processing and new energy. In Tang Guilan’s words, “By turning the waste into new products, the town creates added value.”

Last year, the industrial park began producing a new material by combining waste plastic with wood through a special procedure, which is eco-friendly and more durable than regular wood. An ordinary wooden fence has a lifespan of two years in sunlight and wind, but the wood-plastic composite lasts 10 years, and retains its luster and texture.

To make the most out of electronic waste and establish smooth recycling routines, the park has established eight functional sections, respectively for development/construction services, disassembling and preliminary processing, fine and deep processing, pollution treatment, warehouse and logistics, scientific research and residence. In this way local businesses cooperate and interact to form a complete and efficient industrial chain that reduces costs and increases profits.

A Livable Industrial Town

Learning from past lessons, Ziya is now committed to building a green economy. Local forests are well preserved amid newly constructed plants, and trees are planted throughout the industrial park. It has set up a comprehensive energy conservation and environmental protection system that covers reuse of waste water, rainwater collection, and garbage treatment. A waste water treatment plant, currently under construction, will be able to treat 80,000 tons of water daily. A solid waste treatment center with an investment of RMB 200 million can dispose of 40,000 tons of waste annually. The recycling rates for water, waste treatment and green architecture in the area all reach 100 percent.

The residential sections are also designed to save energy and protect the environment. Geothermal pumps and solar heating systems are installed at public facilities and apartment buildings. A green belt of 20 square kilometers separates the living area and the industrial zone to improve the neighborhood environment.

All electronic waste imported through Tianjin Harbor is transported to the industrial park in Ziya to go through customs declaration, inspection and quarantine procedures. Warehouses in the area are built with rainproof, wind-resistant, and leak-proof designs.

“Here we have a complete set of eco-friendly facilities for recycling electronics, and the whole process, from the point waste enters the park to the time finished products are shipped out, is closely monitored,” said Tang Guilan. As the waste doesn’t have to be moved long distances for different disposal procedures and reuse, chances of pollution during transport are reduced.

“This is an emerging industry that has just started in China, but we can expect a bright future,” she concluded.