A Close Look at Southeast Asia’s E-Waste Crisis

E-waste

For too long now, the world’s e-waste has been heaped into Southeast Asia.

The problem of e-waste is a layered one, and there is no one-for-all solution.

Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to electric or electronic devices that are meant to be thrown away. Potentially hazardous materials used to create tech products makes them toxic, meaning that they need to be discarded in an appropriate way.

A majority of smartphones, for instance have lithium and lead in their batteries, or arsenic in their microchips. While entirely safe housed inside a phone, once stripped, and discarded, these elements are increasingly harmful to their surroundings.

According to a 2020 report by the Global E-waste Statistic Partnership, there has been an increase of 21% in global e-waste over the last five years. This result in a record 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste generated in 2019.

This is a socio-economic problem as much as it is an environmental one. Simply stopping the waste disposal industry in its tracks right now would leave many jobless with no form of income. Moreover, that waste would just flow to the next place of least legal resistance. To combat this problem in its totality, there needs to be economic incentive to recycle waste, or at the very least, dispose it in a healthy way.

E-waste in Southeast Asia

Asia has been bearing the brunt of the world’s e-waste for some time now. But ever since China began refusing the West’s waste around 2018, Southeast Asia has become the next option for waste disposal, both officially and unofficially. While the main recipients of this waste are Malaysia and Thailand.

A study reported that between 2016 and 2018, after China closed its boarders to foreign waste, an increase of 171% in waste transport was recorded in Southeast Asia. Much of this was plastics and other non-biodegradable materials. But due to relatively lax regulations of waste imports in Southeast Asia, e-waste still finds its way to unofficial dumping grounds.

Seemingly, despite official bans on imports and disposal of foreign e-waste, much of it simply continues unofficially. This means disposal workers work in worse conditions, and for lesser pay. Moreover, the disposal industry ends up with almost no environmental regulation.

One such hotspot is the remote agriculture district of Chachoengsao in Thailand. It has been severely affected by e-waste imports containing traces of iron, manganese, lead, nickel, arsenic, and cadmium.

Most of this unofficial processing of waste takes place disproportionally in poorer parts of developing countries. This Sri Lankan report outlines first-hand accounts of how developed nations often exports older technology under the guise of charity, which ends up in these e-waste hotspots. Local communities are often left with little option but to use these e-waste items, and are left with little to no access to recycling options.

Potential Solutions

One solution that provides a definitive starting point to Southeast Asia’s e-waste crisis is the circular economy, or a closed loop system. In essence, a production cycle like this would mean that new products are made from old materials – reusing, refurbishing, remanufacturing, and recycling. Technology would ideally be very modular in this kind of scenario, and equally easy to upcycle into newer tech.

Many companies are also outlining new pledges and plans to better combat e-waste. Apple announced a program to reclaim and recycle old iPhone materials, and a possible transition to recycled and renewable materials. This along with their program to continuously update their tech, so long as hardware survives, sets a precedent for renewables. So long as they keep to their promise to be carbon neutral by 2030, an eco-friendly business model might be viable.

At the same time, while these large corporations have the power to make changes such these, production and profits remain their primary drivers. However, a shift from this perspective is taking place. Hong Kong’s government backed recycling plants, for instance, are viewing recycling from a ‘for-profit’ perspective (there was $USD 65 billion of valuable metals and plastic in the form of e-waste as of 2017). This approach helps to normalize the process of recycling these materials, and can help lead to a more circular economy.

Nevertheless, it will take more than individual effort to make significant changes to current e-waste projections. This will be no less than a serious restructuring of how the world produces and consumes electronic products and technology. It’s a tall order, but doing this, and holding large businesses accountable, is nothing short of a global charge.

Header image by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

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