Major health and environment impacts as unwanted gadgets pile up

As incomes rise and technology rapidly become obsolete, the amount of hazardous e-waste in Southeast Asia is soaring

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January 17, 2017
Major health and environment impacts as unwanted gadgets pile up
Boys gather recyclable materials, mostly composed of discarded electronic parts such computer keyboards, that they recovered from garbage dumpsites and will sell to junk shops in Manila, Philippines 11 April 2010. Photo: EPA/ROLEX DELA PENA

Discarded electronic devices are piling up across Southeast Asia, and risky methods of disposal are causing major environmental and health concerns, a UN report has revealed.

The amount of e-waste in Singapore, the region’s most industrialised country, increased 29.5% between 2010 and 2015, according to the Regional E-waste Monitor: East and Southeast Asia report, while Vietnam’s e-waste soared 90.9% in the same period.

As incomes and living standards rise, there has been a marked increased in the use of smartphones and other electronic devices across the region. And as technology rapidly progresses, gadgets quickly become obsolete and are discarded without seeing much use.

Poorer countries often lack the government regulation necessary to ensure proper waste disposal and rely on informal recycling, or “backyard recycling”. In countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, scavengers routinely collect unwanted electronics and sell them on to vendors who, looking to extract precious compounds or refurbish old electronics, carry out unlicensed and often illegal operations from their homes or shops.

In Vietnam, e-waste is even imported on a black market, with considerable informal extraction processes being carried out informally. Valuable materials are sent to China and the worthless components disposed in the natural environment, causing pollution.

The common practices of burning electronics and using “acid baths” in these countries to recycle materials has profound negative impacts on the health of those processing the products. According to the report, these include reduced lung function, birth defects, stunted childhood growth and mental health issues.

Report co-author Ruediger Kuehr, head of the United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace SCYCLE unit, said informal recycling was a pervasive problem in most countries surveyed.

“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,” he said.

Several countries in the region, including Cambodia, still lack legislation on e-waste, while in others laws are circumvented by black market extractors or not properly enforced by authorities.

According to Sara Behdad, an engineering professor at the University of Buffalo and e-waste expert, solving the issue of electronic waste falls into two categories: more intuitive product design and smarter consumer behaviour. Electronic products, she said, should be made easier to disassemble and built to be repaired, not thrown away.

“[We should also be] changing the way people behave and promoting green behaviour among consumers by offering new business models,” Behdad said, citing the sharing of cars and appliances as an example.

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