Why a sustainable e-waste management is critical, especially for South East Asia?

Far from appealing and trendy projects like carbon exchange or offsetting, Sustainability is also a matter of under-looked and partly ignored topics. And e-waste is one of them. Why? 

Could it be because it asks us to choose between consumerism and sobriety? Or  because finding value in waste is almost never considered by companies? 

What is 100% sure though is that e-waste is going to be one of the biggest challenges of our century! Eco-Business wrote an excellent article a couple years ago about “Defusing the e-waste bomb in Asia”. This topic needs to be in the spotlight given the magnitude of the problem.

What is the situation in South East Asia? Is it the same everywhere? Is Singapore paving the way like in other fields (agri-tech, new sustainable tech, food waste…)? And most importantly, what is the risk of e-waste in the end?

Let’s set the scenery first…

According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020:

  • A record 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2019, and it is expected to reach 74 million metric tonnes by 2030.
  • Asia generated the highest quantity of e-waste in 2019 at 24.9 million metric tonnes, and the region shows the fastest growth in e-waste trends.
the SEA “e-waste bomb”
  • While developed nations are now taking e-waste seriously by ensuring proper disposal, most middle and low-income countries do not yet have a proper e-waste infrastructure. In some countries, e-waste management is even totally absent. It should not come as a surprise as e-waste management requires processes and players — thus, money — to thrive.

A vast definition…

Electronic waste or e-waste describes all discarded electronic equipment and devices. It’s not only laptops & smartphones. E-waste also includes TV, DVD players, printers, machinery…

They can either be:

  • Refurbished/Reused after being repaired
  • Resold on secondhand platforms
  • Recycled through material recovery
  • Disposed, purely

These different scenarii of end-of-life are covered by the 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), a key concept about waste and circularity. NEA’s section is available here to read more about it.

Visit Where to Recycle E-waste in Singapore to locate the nearest e-waste collection point near you.

E-waste isn’t always easy and convenient to recycle.

Local governments sometimes have e-waste collection days a few times a year, but that means that homeowners have to store the unwanted items in the meantime.

Several electronic stores will accept electronics for recycling at no cost (Best Buy and Staples). And several electronics companies accept their products for recycling, including Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, and Dell.

New usages for consumers (streaming, video content-based social networks) and corporations (5G, IOT, new wave of tech) are also massively contributing to increase e-waste “mathematically”.

Indeed, new usages mostly imply better performance and up-to-date equipment, meaning the lifespan of connected devices dropped. To show this phenomenon, you can check the average lifespan of equipment.

In the 90’s, devices were supposed to live for 20–25 years, today, the average is around 4–5 years. With actual gaps between consumer goods (under 3 years for some smartphones for instance) and company machinery (around 7–8 years).

The growing trends of new tech is probably going to make this lifespan shorter in the near future, hence the need to take action NOW. Especially in Asia, where digitalisation & middle-class development is growing way faster than in other areas of the world.

More sophisticated tech also implies devices that are harder to recycle.

Nano alloys, the blending of tiny portions of minerals on some motherboards, make recycling very hard and costly, even if you have the entire process.

You have 0.4g of gold in a random smartphone but to get it back you will need a tremendous amount of energy to recover it. This could illustrate the vicious link between Mineral resources depletion & Energy Consumption.

…for a vast problem!

E-waste comes with a whole bunch of nasty consequences. The main issues revolve around Environment, Human Health & Social trouble:

  • Environmental problem

Here below are some examples to show the impact of e-waste on the planet:

  1. Improper management of e-waste contributes to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents were released into the atmosphere from discarded fridges and air-conditioners that were not managed sustainably.
  2. For pollution, let’s sum it up by saying that e-waste is mostly burned or buried and this leads to toxic gas emissions (made of Mercury, Lead or CFCs for instance). This causes tremendous problems for biodiversity. E-waste causes air pollution but also water and  soil pollution as well. For example, heavy metals and flame retardants due to e-waste burning can infiltrate soils and cause contamination of underlying groundwater or crops. When the soil is contaminated by heavy metals, the crops become vulnerable to absorbing these toxins, which can cause disease and drops in agricultural yields.
  3. The vicious part about this consequence is that — just like Cloud-based infrastructures — this footprint is outsourced somehow. Few countries really take care of e-waste, so we do not see the impact. In South-East Asia, a lot of e-waste is sent to be “processed” to Indonesia. But outsourcing e-waste management to countries that are not prepared to take care of it sustainably is a huge mistake and obviously leads to terrible consequences (see the example of Ghana below).
Bayan Obo, China — The Shadow footprint of High-tech

  • Human Health problems

As mentioned earlier, toxic gas emissions are obviously bad for our health. Especially, mercury, lead, cadmium or polybrominated flame retardants can induce negative health effects on human health (brain, heart, skeleton). It can also considerably affect the nervous and reproductive systems of the human body, leading to disease and birth defects.

Plastic burnt in the process won’t make it better for sure either…

To read more about  human health problems due to e-waste, you can refer to this article on the “disaster in the making” of e-waste-induced illnesses in China. 

  • Social problems

These problems mentioned earlier lead conclusively to social trouble: fight for money made of illegal recycling and resources recovering. In some countries you have parallel economies out of any government control that are thriving. Add on this the tensions on markets and supply chain disruption — that are not due to e-waste management — and you may have a dangerous cocktail ready to explode.

The situation in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, speaks for itself, with kids being intoxicated and stolen from their family to take care of dumped e-waste. You may read this article to understand more about what  happens over there.

Agbogbloshie, Ghana — Biggest dumped e-waste area in Africa

  • “$,$,$”

To finish this explanation of issues due to e-waste improper management, it is interesting to focus on the money value lost in e-waste.

It’s not a problem per se though, and it might even be part of the solution. The value of raw materials in the global e-waste generated in 2019 is equal to approximately $57 billion USD. And that’s the number stated in the 2020 Global e-waste monitor report.

Another number to understand estimated by  Statista  is that a single metric ton of circuit boards usually includes 40–800 times the gold ore concentrations that are mined in the US. The number is 30 to 40 times for copper.

All this gives perspective.

The necessity to rethink an entire model

Some solutions can be briefly mentioned. The order is on purpose.

  • Sobriety: Decrease our consumption of electronic devices — Companies and Consumers alike.
  • Sustainable design: Design devices — AND softwares — that are more flexible and easier to maintain/recycle (Fairphone).
  • More transparency: Increase consumer pressure on hardware manufacturers to get more transparency in manufacturing processes & recycling.
  • Government Intervention: To lead the way, Governments must provide processes, infrastructures & a legal framework to make things possible. Some countries (Japan, Taiwan) are quite advanced on such topics today. But countries that rely on entire underground activities cannot just renonce it. E-waste regulations must be national and regional to be fruitful.
  • Innovation: Recycling e-waste today is challenging. Innovation can help us get more value  from our e-waste, but will not resolve the problem by itself.
  • Properly discarding e-waste: Visit Where to Recycle E-waste in Singapore to locate the nearest e-waste collection point near you.

Decreasing e-waste will ultimately lead to the necessity of rethinking an entire model and a change of mindset overall. Quick fix measures won’t be the long-term solution!

Written by
Thibaut Meurgue-Guyard
Entrepreneur & It Sustainability Consultant, Co-founder – Found & Seek