Asia has become a dumping ground for the world's used and discarded electronics. Electronic waste or ‘e-waste’ includes all types of electrical and electronic equipment discarded by consumers without the intention of re-use. The problem of e-waste in Asia is growing amid concerns about the ability of pre-existing waste infrastructure to deal with the growing amount of e-waste, particularly as electronics include a variety of environmentally deleterious chemicals like mercury, lead, arsenic and beryllium. When these end up in the landfill, chemicals can leech into the soil, air, and nearby watersheds.
A recent study issued by the United Nations University’s Sustainable Cycles programme (UNU) indicates that the amount of e-waste in Asia has risen by 63 percent in the last five years. In China, the generation of e-waste more than doubled between 2010 and 2015, with Hebei, Hunan, Guangdong and Jiangxi Provinces being the most prominent. In Guangdong province, the town of Guiyu has become the largest e-waste recycling site in the world. With a population of 150,000 people, two-thirds of its citizens are migrant labourers engaged in recycling operations.
Courtesy of UNU
For towns like Guiyu, recycling valuable materials such as copper and gold from e-waste has developed a growing ‘informal sector’. Unfortunately, the people and communities involved are often unaware of the proper handling of these materials, using crude recycling techniques such as burning cables to retain internal copper pieces, exposing workers to toxic substances. Informal e-waste recycling hubs are rife with unsafe working and health conditions, as disassembly is mainly carried out via rudimentary recycling methods, lacking proper tools or health and safety equipment.
With populations in Asia becoming increasingly affluent, Asian consumers are using and disposing of more electronics. The growing levels of e-waste can be attributed to rising incomes and increased demand for new appliances across the region. According to UNU, e-waste across the 12 countries analysed equated to 12.3 million tonnes, with developed economies producing the highest average quantity of e-waste per capita. Compared to the regional average of 10 kg in 2015, Hong Kong consumers produced the highest per capita e-waste at 21.7 kg, followed by Singapore (19.95 kg) and Taiwan (19.13 kg). Cambodia (1.10 kg), Vietnam (1.34 kg) and the Philippines (1.35 kg) were at the lower end of the scale.1
Courtesy of UNU
In 2014, Hong Kong generated approximately 156,000 tonnes of e-waste across all electrical and electronic product categories, namely the big six products: TVs, personal computers, washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioners and mobile phones which account for nearly 40 percent of e-waste generated.2
Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department reports annual waste recycling statistics, and the data from 2005 – 2013 showed that approximately 53,000 to 66,000 tonnes or 80 percent of e-waste was recovered each year. Legislation for management of Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) as part of a Producer Responsibility Scheme (PRS) was officially implemented in 2016. WEEE requires a recycling fee paid by producers to finance the scheme, a critical element of its business model. The PRS also relies on retailers and distributors to provide free take back services for consumers.
Before the establishment of Hong Kong’s WEEE recycling programme, ‘informal’ individual collectors dominated the e-waste recycling market. The effectiveness of the informal collection system increased the rates of re-use and material recycling, keeping these materials out of the waste stream. However, as previously mentioned, informal recyclers generally use unsophisticated techniques and lack the appropriate facilities to safeguard human health and the environment.
What does the future hold?
Overall, e-waste regulation is lacking throughout Asia. For example, despite the Chinese government having banned the import of e-waste (for both domestic reuse and recycling) in 2002 and having ratified both the Basel Convention * in 1991 and Ban Amendment in 2001, China remains one of the largest recipients of e-waste.
That said, some governments are realising the benefits of circular economy business models (see image below). The potential benefits in energy and resource security, and reduced pollution are all drivers for further circular economy growth.3
One of the biggest challenges in dealing with e-waste is that the design of products are becoming increasingly sophisticated and compact. This increases the complexity in recovering reusable components, particularly precious metals and rare materials. Technological development in this area is critical to ensuring that waste management companies and producers are able deal with complicated products and nanoscale materials for recycling and reuse. This will require environmentally sound e-waste regulations and management using an approach with a legal framework, a collection mechanism, processing infrastructure, comprehensive environmental health and safety standards, along with defined, integrated e-waste management systems.
The private sector is also contributing by developing e-waste diverting business models. Huawei, a leader in telecommunications equipment has developed eco-designs for its products to maximize lifespan and to improve product take-back, maintenance, recycling, and reuse. Their approach utilises the life-cycle assessment methodology** to help identify recyclable or compostable materials, thus minimizing material use. In 2015, thanks to these efforts, Huawei reduced the rate of waste sent to landfills to 2 percent.
Courtesy of Huawei
The private and public sectors need to collaborate and form partnerships to address the issues of e-waste adequately. Together with local governments, the private and public sectors should lobby for domestic and regional legislation, support the development of formal markets, advocate to consumers, create innovative eco-designs and technologies that will preserve the finite resources needed for manufacturing and in turn avoid a large scale triple bottom line impact. Mismanagement of e-waste affects the air, water, soil, operations, communities and profits. Therefore, proper disposal is critical and requires support from all stakeholders – consumers, the private sector, and governments alike to address the social and environmental consequences adequately.
Photo courtesy of Virginia Quarterly Review
* The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and Their Disposals is an international treaty that was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent the transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries.
** A quantitative procedure to evaluate environmental impacts related to emissions within a set system boundary, commonly including climate change as a category.