E-waste piling up in South-east Asia, UN report finds

The amount of electronics being discarded in Southeast Asia has rocketed since 2010, according to new research from the UN.

Between 2010 and 2015, the amount of e-waste generated jumped almost two-thirds and e-waste generation is growing fast in both total volume and per person.

The trend has been largely caused by rising incomes and high demand for new gadgets and appliances.

12 countries and areas were analysed: Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. The average increase in e-waste across all was 63 per cent in the five years ending in 2015, which totalled 12.3m tonnes.

China alone more than doubled its generation of e-waste in this period to 6.7m tonnes.

Using UN University’s estimation methodology, the research shows rising e-waste quantities outpacing population growth.

“For many countries that already lack infrastructure for environmentally sound e-waste management, the increasing volumes are a cause for concern,” said Ruediger Kuehr of UN University who co-authored the study. “Increasing the burden on existing waste collection and treatment systems results in flows towards environmentally unsound recycling and disposal.”

The report cites four main trends responsible for increasing volumes:

More gadgets: Innovation in technology is driving the introduction of new products, particularly in the portable electronics category, such as tablets and wearables like smart watches.

More consumers: In the East & Southeast Asian region, there are industrializing countries with growing populations, but also rapidly expanding middle classes able to afford more gadgets.

Decreasing usage time: The usage time of gadgets has decreased; this is not only due to rapidly advancing technology that make older products obsolete due to hardware incompatibility (e.g. flash drives replacing floppy disks) and software requirements (e.g. minimum requirements for PCs to run operating software and various other applications), but also soft factors such as product fashion. As more devices are replaced more rapidly, e-waste arising grows.

Imports: Import of EEE provides greater availability of products, both new and second-hand, which also increases e-waste as they reach their end of life

The report also warns of improper and illegal e-waste dumping prevalent in most countries in the study, irrespective of national e-waste legislation.

Consumers, dismantlers and recyclers are often guilty of illegal dumping, particularly of “open dumping”, where non- functional parts and residues from dismantling and treatment operations are released into the environment.

The report also points to common practices such as open burning, which can cause acute and chronic ill-effects on public health and the environment.

Open burning of e-waste is practiced mainly by informal recyclers when segregating organic and inorganic compounds (e.g. burning cables to recover copper).

Though less common, spontaneous combustion sometimes occurs at open dumping sites when components such as batteries trigger fires due to short circuits.

Informal recycling, also called “backyard recycling,” is a challenge for most developing countries in the region, with a large and burgeoning business of conducting unlicensed and often illegal recycling practices from the backyard.

These processes are not only hazardous for the recyclers, their communities and the environment, but they are also inefficient, as they are unable to extract the full value of the processed products.

Mostly, these recyclers recover gold, silver, palladium and copper, largely from printed circuit boards (PCBs) and wires using hazardous wet chemical leaching processes commonly also known as acid baths.

“Open burning and acid bath recycling in the informal sector have serious negative impacts on processers’ occupational health,” Shunichi Honda co-author of this study said. “In the absence of protective materials such as gloves, glasses, masks, etc., inhalation of and exposure to hazardous chemicals and substances directly affect workers’ health.”

“Associations have been reported between exposure from improper treatment of e-waste and altered thyroid function, reduced lung function, negative birth outcomes, reduced childhood growth, negative mental health outcomes, impaired cognitive development, cytotoxicity and genotoxicity.”

In October, the International Telecommunication Union approved an eco-friendly standard for universal laptop chargers in the hopes that it would reduce the amount of e-waste. 

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