Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Thailand Recycling Old Laptop Industry Scaring Resident and Worried About Their Health.

The electronic waste industry is booming in Southeast Asia, scaring residents worried about their health. Despite the import ban, Thailand is a center of business.

KOH KHANUN, Thailand - Crouched on the floor in a low-light factory, women checked out the gutted bowels of the modern world: batteries, circuit boards and cable bundles.

They broke the scrap metal, known as e-waste, with hammers and raw hands. The men, some with faces wrapped in rags to repel the fumes, threw the debris into a resonance machine that rescues usable metal.

While they were working, smoke escaped over nearby villages and farms. Residents have no idea what is in the smoke: plastic, metal, who knows? All they know is that it stinks and they feel sick.

The factory, New Sky Metal, is part of a thriving electronic waste industry throughout Southeast Asia, born of China's decision to stop accepting the world's electronic waste, which was poisoning its land and its inhabitants. Thailand in particular has become a center of the industry even when activists recede and their government struggles to balance the competitive interests of public safety with the benefits obtained from lucrative trade.

Last year, Thailand banned the import of foreign electronic waste. However, new factories are opening across the country, and tons of electronic waste are being processed, say environmental supervisors and industry experts.

"Electronic waste has to go somewhere," said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, which campaigns against landfill in poor countries, "and the Chinese are simply moving their entire operations to Southeast Asian".

"The only way to earn money is to obtain a large volume of cheap and illegal labor and pollute the environment," he added.

Each year, according to the United Nations, 50 million tons of electronic waste are produced worldwide, as consumers get used to throwing away last year's model and acquiring the next novelty.
The notion of recycling these devices sounds virtuous: an infinite cycle of technological utility.

But it is a dirty and dangerous job to extract small amounts of precious metals, such as gold, silver and copper, from discarded phones, computers and televisions.

For years, China absorbed much of the world's electronic waste. Then, in 2018, Beijing closed its borders to foreign electronic waste. Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, with their lax application of environmental laws, the easily exploited workforce and the cozy link between business and government, saw an opportunity.

"Each circuit and each cable is very lucrative, especially if there is no concern for the environment or for workers," said Penchom Saetang, head of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand, an environmental control agency.

While Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have rejected individual shipments of waste from Western countries, Thailand was the first to more systematically reject electronic waste that floods its ports.

In June of last year, the Thai Ministry of Industry announced with great fanfare the ban on foreign electronic waste. Police conducted a series of high-profile raids in at least 10 factories, including New Sky Metal.

"New Sky is closed now, fully closed," said Yutthana Poolpipat, head of the Laem Chabang port customs office in September. "There is no electronic waste entering Thailand, zero."

But a recent visit to the village of Koh Khanun showed that the factory was still in operation, like many others, a reflection of the weak regulatory system and corruption that has contaminated the country.

Despite the headlines about the police raid, New Sky Metal was fined a maximum of only $650 for each of its licensing infractions.

Since the ban on electronic waste, 28 new recycling factories, most of which deal with electronic waste, began operating in a province east of Bangkok, Chachoengsao, where Koh Khanun is located, according to provincial statistics. This year, 14 companies in that province obtained licenses to process electronic waste.

Most of the new factories are located in central Thailand, between Bangkok and Laem Chabang, the largest port in the country, but there are more provinces that allow businesses.

Thai authorities say some incinerators may still be burning because factories are working through old reserves. Plants may also be processing domestic waste instead of foreign, they say.

But no explanation is likely, according to industry experts. Accumulations of imported waste would not last as long. And the amount of electronic waste produced by Thailand is much higher than the amount of new factories.

Foreign electronic waste could be smuggled into the country mistakenly labeled as scrap metal, said Banjong Sukreeta, deputy general manager of the Department of Industrial Works.