8 min read

What is e-waste and why is it critical for South East Asia?

Feb 21, 2022

Powerful image isn't it?

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

Because dealing with trash is not noble? Because it asks us to choose between consumerism and sobriety? Because finding value in waste is never considered by companies (let’s debunk this later). Well, hard to say.

What is 100% sure though is that e-waste is going to be one of the biggest challenges of our century…and no one knows it! Eco-Business wrote an excellent article a couple years ago about “Defusing the e-waste bomb in Asia”. Nothing much has changed, so I guess it’s time to put this topic in the spotlight again.

Because dealing with trash is not noble? Because it asks us to choose between consumerism and sobriety? Because finding value in waste is never considered by companies (let’s debunk this later). Well, hard to say.

To reply to these questions, I felt the need to write this mini-series to explore the situation — and possible future(s) — about e-waste in South East Asia, with a strong focus on 3 major countries; Singapore, Malaysia&Indonesia.

This first article is just playing the role of an appetiser to help you understand what the problem is and why a portion Asia’s future is at stake here! Ok, no more time to (e-)waste! (Sorry, I had to do it…!)

So, 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 include TV, DVD players (feel old yet?), printers, machinery,…

They can either be;

  • Refurbished/Reused after being repaired
  • Resold on secondhand platform
  • 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 in case you want to read more about it.

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, we can just have a look at 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 smartphone for instance) and company machinery (around 7–8 years). The growing trends of new tech is probably gonna make this lifespan shorter in the near future, hence the need to take action NOW. Especially in Asia, where digitisation & 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 is it worth to get it back as you are gonna need tremendous amount of energy to recover it? Hmm, food for thought for you to think about the vicious link between Mineral ressources depletion & Energy Consumption…

…for a vast problem!

E-waste comes with a whole bunch of nasty consequences. It is very hard to be exhaustive in a one-shot article but main issues revolve around Environment, Human Health & Social trouble;

  • Environmental problem

There along comes the elephant in the Room! I guess I do not have to mention this one extensively, don’t I? You guess than dumping e-waste in the wild is not great for the planet? You guessed it right!

Examples to show the impact of e-waste on the planet;

> 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.

> For pollution…well a 100 pages-long article could not make the cut. List’s too long! But let’s sum it up saying that e-waste is mostly burned or buried and this lead to toxic gas emissions (made of Mercury, Lead or CFCs for instance). This causes tremendous problems for biodiversity. But e-waste causes air pollution but water & 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.

Bayan Obo, China — The Shadow footprint of High-tech

> 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 lead to terrible consequences (see the example of Ghana below).

We will obviously talk about the iconic example of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in the future articles to explain how critical e-waste is for this country. Mentioning the situation in Phnom Penh is also worth, even though less heard of.

  • 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…

I don’t have the time to list all human health problems due to e-waste but if you want to know more, please take time to read this article to know more about the “disaster in the making” of e-waste-induced illnesses in China…Astonishing!

  • 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 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. I recommend this article to read more about the mind-blowing things that happen over there.

Agbogbloshie, Ghana — Biggest dumped e-waste area in Africa
  • “$,$,$”

To finalise this explanation of issues due to e-waste improper management, I wanted to add one last thing. It’s not a problem per se though, and it might even be part of the solution. Indeed, I wanted to focus on the $$$ value lost in e-waste.

If I told you that the value of raw materials in the global e-waste generated in 2019 is equal to approximately $57 billion USD, would you believe it? Then, you should, because that’s the number stated in the 2020 Global e-waste monitor report.

Another number to understand why we do not bother yet. Statista estimated 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 give perspective, right?

The necessity to rethink an entire model

Today, we are not here to discuss the solutions to reduce e-waste — that’s for another day! — but this article’s just an intro for you to understand what’s at stake. However, we can briefly mention some solutions (Note this 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 (all hail 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 kiss them goodbye. E-waste regulations must be national and regional to be fruitful. We will start to have a look at this in the next articles, taking Singapore’s case as an example.
  • Innovation; Recycling e-waste today is not a piece of cake. Innovation can help us get more value of our e-waste, but it’s the ultimate solution that should not be mentioned first, it will not save us by itself

I will take time in the future to explain in depth these possible solutions — and others — but it seems quite obvious that 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…!

Hope to see you for the next article, about Singapore. Coming out in December so wait util you read it before you buy the new iPhone for your sister please!

In the meantime stay safe and join the #ReuseRevolution with Found & Seek!

Sustainably Yours,