15 May E-Waste, a First-World Problem

Incomes are rising in Asia, and this growing affluence leads to a proportional rise in consumerism. The electronics sector is a good example of this with Asia-pacific being the world’s lardgest consumer electronics market, with sales of more than US$303.6 billion in 2015. While this bodes well for the economy, it has a dark underbelly that cannot be ignored – e-waste.


Singapore – a prime example of rapid income growth leading to increased consumption 

In 2014 alone, Asia generated 16 million tonnes of e-waste. For comparison, North and South America combined generated only 12 million tonnes. The amount of e-waste in ASEAN has increased by 63% in the last 5 years. China alone, has doubled its generation of e-waste between 2010 and 2015, outpacing its population growth.

Value of E-Waste

Make no mistake, this waste is valuable – it is estimated that if we could recover all the gold that is in the world’s e-waste, we’d get as much as 11% of the total goal mined worldwide each year. The paradox though is that while it is one of the highest value waste streams, it is also one of the most polluting if not managed well.


In many Asian countries, formal recycling of e-waste is a rarity, with the majority of it being ‘backyard recycled’ without any health and safety measures. The recyclers use solvents like sulphuric acid or aqua regia in a process known as caustic leaches, in order to concentrate the valuable metals and remove the impurities in the e-waste. Another method that recyclers use is open burning to segregate the valuable compounds to sell. Both these methods are highly dangerous because they release toxic fumes, that can adversely affect their healths.

Furthermore, once the valuable metals like gold are extracted, the rest of the toxic substances are often dumped into open dumps or the ocean.

To tackle the growing trend of developed countries shipping e-waste to Asia for ‘backyard recycling’, laws were passed forbidding transboundary movement of e-waste. But as the Basil Action Network reports, e-waste continues to be smuggled across borders by people looking to make a quick buck without regard to worker safety or the environment.

Current rates of responsible e-waste recycling is at an abysmal 15.5% worldwide. A fact that’s doubly ironic considering that some of the precious rare-earth metals that are used in manufacturing these gadgets are set to run out in the coming decades. Businesses are literally letting money go to waste – a research published in the Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews estimates that the market in Europe alone, is worth 2.15 billion Euros, and will grow to 3.67 billion Euros by 2020.

Businesses capitalising on E-Waste


Some businesses have taken the first steps towards tackling this problem and moving to a circular economy through takeback programs. For example, Dell offers a takeback program, where consumers can either send any electronic product back, or trade them in for a gift card. They can do this for electronics of any brand, and are not limited to only Dell products. Apple also has a similar program. And here in Singapore, StarHub has launched it’s RENEW program to tackle e-waste, with 325 bins around the city. Consumers can drop of any device for responsible recycling.

While there are other similar initiatives that must be lauded for bringing the issue to light, much is still unclear on what happens to the e-waste from then on.

On paper, it does seem quite promising, but as a documentary on Channel News Asia – Trash Trail has found, some electronics are shipped to other countries under the guise of being recycled, but end up in ‘backyard recycling’ facilities anyway. There needs to be a lot more work by all stakeholders to address these gaps in the supply chain to make e-waste recycling truly circular.

What’s Next?

Efforts to tackle the issue of e-waste is still in its infancy stages, and as more companies start to see e-waste as a valuable resource, it will spark a positive change in how e-waste is being dealt with. With the R2 certification, the leading standard for electronics repair and recycling, more companies can be sure that their e-waste recycling is environmentally responsible. This not only looks good on the company, but gives more individuals the impetus to recycle their e-waste.

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29 Jul Stepping into the communities of Papua New Guinea.

Day 2 notes from the field.

I slowly dozed off to sleep last night while the ship was still in the tumbling waters of the Coral Sea, and early this morning I woke to the rhythmic humming noise of the ship’s engine — as we sailed upstream on quiet river waters.

It’s now 9am on Sunday 27 July and we are in the heart of the Gulf of Papua.

Quiet waters of the Pie river. The nipa palm trees that surround the banks have multiple uses for locals — its shoots as starch, fruits as syrup and leaves for roofs.

A quick peep on the deck greeted us with lush green vegetation on both sides of the river and overcast grey skies. The Pie river was at most places half a kilometer long and scattered with debris on both sides from the last few weeks of flooding.

Jacqui’s very expensive rain protection for film gear amazingly worked — mostly because there was no rain.

We anchored off the coastal village Baimuru and readied ourselves for the trip ashore just as the locals finished their Sunday prayers. Jacqui rigged her protection for the film-gear, Mat put on his mud boots and a 2-min zodiac ride later we were up the wooden steps and straight into the town’s market.

“Daraema!” (good afternoon!), greeted a local family in Koriki language as soon as we set foot.

Fresh sago cut and prepared only 24 hours ago ready for the picking at Baimuru market.

Sago, mud crabs, betel nuts, star fruits, bananas, bread and fried fish were lined up onto wooden tables. Entire families were waiting behind their wares but no one was pushy, only very friendly and welcoming.

A local lady, Ana, who spoke pretty good English, said most sellers paddle from nearby settlements sometimes up to two hours to get to Baimuru. A quick scan of the prices around the tables suggests you could buy ingredients for a local meal of sago (carbohydrates), mud crabs (proteins) and bananas (vitamins) for just under 3 Kina (S$1.5). With a strict fruit ration on-board the ship, we decided to support the local economy.

Apart from the locals’ generosity, the only other thing that we were quickly enveloped in was mud.

Captain Wayne wouldn’t let us get in with feet like that.

Many of the veterans on the ship had warned us, but nothing quite prepared us for the sticky mud in which you would step your boots into, alas only to have your foot come out. It took some skill and couple of slips to understand the character of the mud and know when to give in to the ankle-deep, brown goo and when to fight gravity against it. I was sure the locals were having fun watching us, but it was fun for us too — there’s just something about mud that reminds of you of when you were 5 years old.

YWAM volunteer Andrew Rosenfield walking around the village like a local.

The short trip ashore was an overall success. We had initiated contact with the local health workers and leaders who will be assisting us with the health clinics over the next couple of days here, and we’d been welcomed by the community.

InterOil employee and YWAM volunteer, Anthony Ipai, serendipitously reunited in Baimuru with his cousin sister whom he hasn’t seen for many years.

The evening was wrapped up with a wonderful interview with Hannah Peart, the chief medical coordinator from YWAM. She’ll soon be introducing us to many interesting stories from the 8 years that she’s spent in this quiet, innocent and pristine part of the world.

YWAM’s Hannah Peart was totally natural in her interview.

More details about YWAM — MSA (Youth With A Mission — Medical Ship Australia): http://ywamships.org.au/

Find more about the Gulf of Papua:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_of_Papua

Story by Ashwin Subramaniam — Co-Founder & Projects Director, Gone Adventurin’

Photo Credit — Mathew Lynn

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