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More Affordable Devices Lead to Doubling of E-Waste in China Since 2010

A migrant worker strips down wires by hand in Guiyu, Guangdong province | Image credit: Greenpeace

The volume of discarded electronics in East and South-East Asia jumped almost two-thirds between 2010 and 2015, and e-waste generation is growing fast in both total volume and per capita measures, according to new research by United Nations University (UNU).

Driven by rising incomes and high demand for new gadgets and appliances, the average increase in e-waste across all 12 countries and areas analyzed — Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam — was 63 percent in the five years ending in 2015 and totaled 12.3 million tonnes, a weight 2.4 times that of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

China’s generation of e-waste more than doubled between 2010 and 2015 to 6.7 million tonnes, up 107 percent.

The first Regional E-waste Monitor: East and Southeast Asia was compiled by the UNU through its Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) program and funded by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment. Using UN University’s estimation methodology, the research shows rising e-waste quantities outpacing population growth. The average e-waste generation per capita in the region was approximately 10 kg in 2015, with the highest generation found in Hong Kong (21.7 kg), followed by Singapore (19.95 kg) and Taiwan (19.13 kg). There were large differences between nations on the per capita scales, with Cambodia (1.10 kg), Vietnam (1.34 kg) and the Philippines (1.35 kg) the lowest e-waste generators per capita in 2015.

The report uniquely presents a summary of the regional e-waste statuses, and it is arranged to allow direct comparisons where possible that can help further the development of e-waste management systems and policies based on other countries’ experiences.

“For many countries that already lack infrastructure for environmentally sound e-waste management, the increasing volumes are a cause for concern,” says co-author Ruediger Kuehr, of UNU. “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, smartphones and wearables such as smart watches.
  • More consumers: In East & South-East Asia, 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, not only due to rapidly advancing technology that makes older products obsolete or incompatible (e.g., flash drives replacing disks; minimum requirements for personal computers to run operating software and other applications) but also soft factors such as product fashion.
  • Imports: Import of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) provides greater availability of products, both new and secondhand, which also increases e-waste as they reach their end of life.

The report 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.

Studies in the region show that the main reasons are:

  • Lack of awareness: End users do not know that they should dispose of their obsolete EEE separately, or how or where to dispose of their e-waste. Additionally, informal e-waste recyclers often lack knowledge about the hazards of unsound practices.
  • Lack of incentives: Users choose to ignore collection and/or recycling systems if they need to pay for them.
  • Lack of convenience: Even if disposal through existing systems does not incur a fee, users may choose not to dispose of their e-waste in the proper channels if it is inconvenient or requires their time and effort.
  • Absence of suitable sites: There may be a lack of proper locations for hazardous waste disposal where residues from e-waste recycling can be sent.
  • Weak governance and lax enforcement: A country with inadequate management or enforcement of e-waste legislation may result in rampant non-compliance.

Dangers of rampant e-waste

The report also points to some of the risks associated with a proliferation of end-of-life electronics lying around: Common practices such as open burning, which is practiced mainly by informal recyclers when segregating organic and inorganic compounds (e.g., burning cables to recover copper), can cause acute and chronic ill-effects on public health and the environment. Though less common, spontaneous combustion can sometimes occur at open dumping sites when components such as batteries trigger fires due to short circuits.

Informal or “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.

Typically, informal recyclers use solvents such as sulphuric acid (for copper) or aqua regia (for gold). The leachate solutions go through separation and purification processes to concentrate the valuable metals and separate impurities, which often results in the release of toxic fumes. As co-author Deepali Sinha Khetriwal, Associate Programme Officer at UNU, points out, indirect exposure to these hazardous substances can cause many health issues, particularly for families of informal recyclers who often live and work in the same location, and for communities living in and around the area of informal recycling sites.

“Open burning and acid bath recycling in the informal sector have serious negative impacts on processers’ occupational health,” Shunichi Honda, co-author of the study, warns. “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.”

Top marks to Japan, Republic of Korea, Taiwan

According to the report, Japan, Republic of Korea and Taiwan have a head start in the region in establishing e-waste collection and recycling systems, having begun in the late nineties to adopt and enforce e-waste-specific legislation. Among the most advanced economies and areas in Asia, the three are also characterized by high per capita e-waste generation, formal collection and recycling infrastructure and relatively strong enforcement.

China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam all have recent e-waste legislation. The four countries are therefore in a transitionary phase, with a mix of formal and informal elements in an evolving ecosystem in terms of collection and recycling infrastructure. The countries face similar challenges in enforcing regulations with limited resources and capacity and low public awareness regarding the hazards of improper disposal of e-waste.

Hong Kong and Singapore, meanwhile, do not have e-waste-specific legislation. Instead, the governments collaborate with producers to manage e-waste through a public-private partnership. As small island nations with large shipping and trade networks, both countries have significant transboundary movements of e-waste generated domestically, as well as in transit from other countries.

Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand have yet to establish legal frameworks for e-waste management. However, there is an active informal sector in these countries with an established network for collection and import of end-of-life products and their recycling, particularly repair, refurbishment and parts harvesting.

Promise of circular solutions

Whether or not our current rate of production or consumption will slow down, consumers seem to be over the proliferation of the next-newest device: A 2016 Greenpeace survey of 6,000 people across the U.S., China, Mexico, Russia, Germany and South Korea revealed that over half of consumers want manufacturers to release fewer phone models and do more to help them recycle their old devices. Add this to the physical mess and potential health risks created by e-waste, recent research also points to the undeniable business case for creating infrastructure worldwide for the optimal reuse and recycling of electronics and their many components: 2015 reports from Green Alliance and Trucost asserted that a circular economy for electronics would cut the carbon footprint of each device by up to half while expanding sales, and that 100 percent recovery of raw materials and precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum would increase financial and natural capital benefits by $10 billion.


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