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.
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.