Tech

The price of electronic waste recycling in Thailand: ‘We will slowly die’

Despite restrictions on the import of electronic waste, Thailand is still a waste disposal center of Southeast Asia.
In the dim light of the factory, the women crouched down on the floor to filter out the “gut” of modern equipment: batteries, circuits and loads of wires. They beat them with hammers and held with bare hands.

Men, some with their cloths covered to avoid unpleasant odors, scooped up metal piles into the mill. Smoke rises right next to the fields and the village. People in the village did not know if it was plastic or metal burning smoke. They only know that this smoke smells disgusting and makes them nauseous.

China is closed, Southeast Asia is well received

The factory, named New Sky Metal, is one of the factories that is opening up to an emerging electronic waste disposal movement in Southeast Asia. Since China has banned the import of electronic waste from all over the world, waste has started flowing into Southeast Asia and poisoning the environment and its people.

The women filter electronic waste with their bare hands at the New Sky Metal factory, Thailand. Photo: New York Times.
The women filter electronic waste with their bare hands at the New Sky Metal factory, Thailand. Photo: New York Times.

 

Thailand has become the center of the waste treatment industry. The Thai government must also find a balance between the interests of the majority and the profits generated from the disposal and trade of electronic waste.

In 2018, Thailand banned the import of electronic waste. But factories are still growing across the country, and tons of electronic waste is being processed daily.

“Electronic waste must also have a place. From China, they move to Southeast Asia,” said Jum Puckett, director of the Basel Action Network, the campaign to combat electronic waste transport to poor countries.

“The only way to make money is to deal with the bulk of illegal labor cheaply, and ignore the pollution,” Mr. Puckett said.

According to UN figures, each year there are up to 50 million tons of electronic waste worldwide. Recycling these devices sounds like the best solution. However, to get precious metals such as gold, silver or copper inside phones, computers and TVs, recyclers must accept health risks.

A landfill in Krok Sombun, east of Bangkok. Photo: New York Times.
A landfill in Krok Sombun, east of Bangkok. Photo: New York Times.

 

China has been doing this for years, until 2018, when it shut down imported electronic waste. Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia, with looser environmental laws, abundant and cheap workers and the ambiguous relationship between business and government immediately saw an opportunity.

“Every circuit or cable brings money, especially when people don’t have to worry about the environment or the health of recyclers,” said Penchom Saetang, head of environmental monitoring organization Ecological Aleart & Recovery.

The law has been issued but the situation is getting worse

While Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines deal with waste from Western countries, Thailand is the first country to introduce legislation to combat this situation. In June 2018, the Thai Ministry of Industry announced a ban on the import of electronic waste. Police in the country raided many recycling plants, including New Sky Metal.

“New Sky is closed. No electronic waste has entered Thailand,” Yutthana Poolpipat, head of the customs office at Laem Chabang port, said in September.

However, during a recent tour of the New York Times , this factory was still in operation. This is the general situation of many localities in Thailand. This company was only fined about 650 USD for each violation.

Since Thailand imposed the ban, 28 more recycling plants, mainly electronic waste, have sprung up in Chachoengsao province east of Bangkok. In 2019, 14 companies were licensed to process electronic waste.

Thai officials say the factories are still operating because they have not fully processed their inventory, or are handling electronic waste in the country. However, industry experts say that explanation is not reasonable.

Handling imported electronic waste in the past could not take so much time. The amount of electronic waste that Thai people emit is not enough for a series of new factories to grow.

“Just ask the customs authorities about the false declaration. It is not enough to make the law, when the executor does not do it correctly,” said Banjong Sukreeta, deputy director of the industry bureau. However, Mr. Yutthana confirmed that every shipment at the port was carefully controlled.

In October, the Thai Parliament passed a number of laws that reduce environmental responsibility for factories. Meanwhile, the law to control the electronic waste industry in Thailand has not been passed.

“Thailand is accepting its own pollution with new laws. There are too many holes to avoid sanctions,” said Somnuck Jongmeewasin, an environmental lecturer at Silpakorn University.

Electronic waste bags at a factory closed in Southeast Bangkok. Many factories thought to be closed are still in operation. Photo: New York Times.
Electronic waste bags at a factory closed in Southeast Bangkok. Many factories thought to be closed are still in operation. Photo: New York Times.

 

At King Aibo Electronics, one of the factories near the aforementioned temple, signs showing hours of delivery came in Chinese. All three workers present when the New York Times reporter arrived were Chinese.

“We know that Chinese people come here to open factories,” said Banjong Sukreeta. However, he also said that Thailand now has stricter regulations.

After the ban, factories did not close but only sprouted up, although officials insisted they were closed.

Earlier this year, authorities admitted that 2,900 tons of electronic waste seized during last year’s inspections had disappeared. The Chinese manager who was assigned to take care of this waste also has no trace.

In September, Sumate Rianpongnam, an environmental activist, spoke out about pollution in his home town of Kabinburi. That night, he heard the sounds of motorbikes and guns being shot near his home. Not long after, a small grenade exploded near his friend’s house but fortunately no one was injured.

There are many people who are not so lucky.

In 2013, a village chief spoke out about discharging waste illegally and was shot three times in the daytime. The person responsible for the shooting was an official of the local Department of Industry. He was released last September.

“I chose to do this, and I was not afraid to die,” Sumate said.

“I couldn’t choose clean air to breathe.”

Some electronic waste, if not destroyed at the proper temperature, will release dioxin, a substance that can cause cancer and invade the food chain.

Phayao Jaroonwong, a farmer living east of Bangkok, said her fruit tree died a lot after sprouting an electronic waste disposal plant near her home.

Metta Maihala, who owns a garden near the garbage treatment plant. Photo: New York Times.
Metta Maihala, who owns a garden near the garbage treatment plant. Photo: New York Times.

 

“Why don’t Westerners recycle their own waste? Thailand can’t accept any more. We are not the world’s landfill,” she said.

Phra Chayaphat Kuntaweera, the head of a temple near many recycling plants, said he and the monks in the temple have recently been coughing and vomiting. When factories burn waste, they feel a headache.

The “for sale” pagoda has been hung by the abbot since the beginning of this year, because the monks in the temple could not stand the smell of rubbish any more.

Under the shadow of smoke billets from the New Sky Metal factory, Metta Maihala checked the eucalyptus trees that were planted. The lake that led to the farm seemed to have a cloud covering it and it’s smell caused headaches.

“We have no choice of air to breathe. There will be more factories opened, and we will all slowly die,”

Ms. Metta said.

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