AsianScientist (Jan. 17, 2017) – The volume of discarded electronics in East and Southeast 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 research by the United Nations (UN) University.
The average increase in e-waste across all 12 countries and areas analyzed—Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam—was 63 percent in the five years ending in 2015 and totalled 12.3 million tonnes, a weight 2.4 times that of the Great Pyramid of Giza. China alone more than doubled its generation of e-waste between 2010 and 2015 to 6.7 million tonnes, up 107 percent.
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, Province of China (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.
“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 UN University. “Increasing the burden on existing waste collection and treatment systems results in flows towards environmentally unsound recycling and disposal.”
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.
Informal recycling, also called ‘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. This often results in the release of toxic fumes.
“Open burning and acid bath recycling in the informal sector have serious negative impacts on processers’ occupational health,” Shunichi Honda co-author of this 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.”
“Indirect exposure to these hazardous substances is also a cause of many health issues, particularly for families of informal recyclers who often live and work in the same location, as well as for communities living in and around the area of informal recycling sites,” added co-author Deepali Sinha Khetriwal, Associate Programme Officer, UN University.
According to the report, Japan, South 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 legislations. This was built in large part on experience in solid waste management. Among the most advanced economies and areas in Asia, the three are also characterised by high per capita e-waste generation, formal collection and recycling infrastructure and relatively strong enforcement.
Hong Kong and Singapore, meanwhile, do not have specific e-waste 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.
The report can be found at: Honda et al. (2016) Regional E-Waste Monitor: East and Southeast Asia.
Source: United Nations University; Photo: Shutterstock.
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