Electronic waste (e-waste) generated in Asia in the past five years adds up to more than two times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza, according to a recent United Nations University report.
“China alone more than doubled its generation of e-waste between 2010 and 2015,” up 107% to 6.7 million tonnes, according to a press release about the report Regional E-waste Monitor – East and Southeast Asia.
Hong Kong had the highest per capita e-waste generation, with an estimated 21.7kg produced per person in 2015, according to the report.
Singapore followed with 19.95kg per person, while Europe produced 15.6kg of e-waste per person. The lowest per-capita e-waste generator was Cambodia, at 1.1kg per person.
Improper and illegal e-waste dumping means increased exposure to extremely toxic chemicals, leading to severe health and environment consequences.
Acids that are used to separate the metals in the electronic products are a particular concern, with inhalation or exposure to them causing serious health problems.
Increased consumption of electronics goods contributed to the 12.3 million tonnes of e-waste produced by Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, the report said.
More gadgets, more consumers and more rapid device replacement have contributed to the growth of e-waste, the report said.
Exposure from improper e-waste treatment has been linked to a number of health issues, including altered thyroid function, reduced lung function and reduced childhood growth.
The barriers to proper disposal include a lack of awareness, ignorance of collection or recycling systems that require payment and weak enforcement, the report added.
Hong Kong addiction
Hong Kong residents love to own the latest gadgets. But their passion for electronics comes at a cost to the environment.
City residents don't have just one mobile phone. There are 2.4 active mobile phones per person in Hong Kong, according to the city's census and statistics department.
At the Wanchai Computer Centre, three brightly lit floors are filled with stores overflowing with electronic gadgets new and old.
“If a new product comes, Hong Kong is most likely to buy new things,” said Gabriel Liu, 31, a technician at a computer sales and repair shop at the centre.
The stream of waste has grown due to the increasing number of gadgets and the decreasing average lifespan of electronic goods, as technology progresses at a rapid rate. Computers once had a four- to six-year lifespan, and now it is likelier to be two to three.
Liu said he was not surprised about the level of waste being produced by the city and supported government efforts to reduce it. Hong Kong is planning to adopt a scheme whereby electronics manufacturers and sellers will be required to recycle e-waste and pay a recycling levy for electronics sold in the city, a government spokeswoman said.
Sellers will be required to provide an e-waste removal service for consumers free of charge so that old equipment can be delivered to a competent recycler.
Around 80% of Hong Kong’s recorded e-waste is recovered by second-hand dealers and is usually exported for reuse or recovery of valuable materials, said a spokeswoman for the city’s Environmental Protection Department.
The waste left in Hong Kong comprises only a small percentage of total municipal solid waste disposal, she said.
But Liu was sceptical about whether a recycling programme centred on sellers would be effective.
“People get too lazy to bring it here,” Liu said.
Michael Kwong, a salesman at a store specialising in camera equipment, confessed, “Honestly, I just throw [electronics] away with the trash [once they can’t be repaired].” – Agencies
> Malaysians throw away one million tonnes of e-waste every year. – the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry.
> Currently most e-waste goes to landfills and incinerators though it can leak hazardous chemicals into landfills and groundwater. When burnt, e-waste releases dioxins that can damage nervous systems. – Selangor state Tourism, Consumer Affairs and Environment committee chairman Elizabeth Wong.
> E-waste that does not go into landfills can end up in backyard recyclers, which use primitive methods; these include burning circuit boards and using acid to get to the copper and gold in a device, processes that release toxins into the air and land – Dr Theng Lee Chong.
> Lithium and mercury from old batteries and electronics can cause kidney damage and memory problems.
Here’s how you can dispose of your old electronics properly:
> There are disposal centres around the country under the “Old Phone, New Life” campaign run by Maxis, Digi, TM, Celcom and U Mobile. See the list at: http://mobileewaste.mcmc.gov.my/en-us/where-do-we-recycle#throw
> There are some 140 e-waste collection centres nationwide located at hypermarkets and electrical retail outlets like Senheng under the Alam Alliance programme by the Department of Environment (DOE).
> The Electrical and Electronics Association of Malaysia has been running an e-waste recovery programme in Kuala Lumpur with e-waste bins in shopping complexes like Publika and Low Yat Plaza.
For more info, read the article “What would you do with your old phone?”