Following China’s total ban in 2017, Thailand has experienced a 20-fold increase in imported e-waste. Though Thai law has been revamped since China’s ban around proper waste disposal and the importation of foreign waste, recycling centres and waste importers continue to find loopholes. Citizen groups in opposition wonder if new laws will be enough to cut off the big-money foreign companies are making out of lax government oversight and a glut of cheap labour.
Para Chayaphat Kuntaweera, the head Abbot at Wat Khao Hin Sorn – a village temple in central Thailand – posted a sign at the temple gate that read ‘Wat Khao Hin Sorn for sale, cheap’. It was a way for Chayaput to protest the toxic fumes from a nearby recycling facility which he says is burning e-waste in a very Thai way: with humility and humour.
But he nonetheless realised that it is a serious problem, and insisted, “Monks, just like everyone else in this village, are getting sick from the fumes,” the Abbot told The New York Times.
It has been reported in the New York Times and Bangkok Post that many of the newly opened, larger companies that deal with imported e-waste, such as cell phones, batteries, accumulators, laptops, keyboards and desktop computers, are Chinese-owned and use illegal foreign labour, mostly from Myanmar, to perform the dangerous job of removing and destroying the inevitable toxic materials.
As the cosy relationship between the Chinese and Thai governments extends into business practices, the hope of ending the polluting practices in Thailand, as well as other poorer southeast Asian countries, lies in the hands of citizens and NGOs.
“These used products are electronic waste. Why do we need to import these used products? This is how other countries find ways to dump their waste,” Akarapon Teebthaisong, research and technical officer for EARTH (Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand) – an NGO that promotes climate justice, good governance and accountability of governmental and international agencies, told the Bangkok Post.
“We found that from last September to April (2021), 28.85 million kilograms of used electronic waste was imported into Thailand as foreign countries exploited a loophole in Thailand’s regulations,” Teebthaisong added.
Laws have no teeth
The 400,000 tons of e-waste produced domestically each year – a number used by both NGOs and news sources – should have been enough to call government attention to the destructive recycling practices; but phones, laptops and batteries have simply been dumped and left to the economically-driven model of salvage and recycle, which relies on refuse workers to sort through rubbish for material of value, part of what is known as the circular economy. It seemingly took the 2017 increase from 2,000 tonnes to over 50,000 tons of imported foreign e-waste to spark a governmental reaction.
The Commerce Ministry first announced a ban on 15 September, 2018 on the import of 428 types of e-waste with an aim of helping Thailand reduce harmful imports. At first, the ban along with Thailand’s signing on to the 1989 Basel Convention was a welcome sign of action. Alas, the ban proved toothless and Thailand failed to follow through and ratify the Basel agreement. The flow of e-waste continues coming into the country.
Thailand’s poorly enforced laws and readily corrupt government officials keep loopholes open for bad players to exploit. According to a New York Times article, a recycling company called New Sky Metals was reportedly closed by the police during a raid of 10 recycling centres in 2018. In an address to the press following the raids, Yutthana Woolpit, the head of the Laem Cha bang Port customs bureau, said that “There is no electronic waste coming into Thailand, zero.”
Reporters from the New York Times visited New Sky Metals in 2019 and found that it was still involved in handling foreign e-waste and had only been cited $650 per offence. At the same time, documents of import and working schedules written in Chinese were found and employees from Myanmar were interviewed. Since then, 14 additional businesses in that province alone were granted licences to process electronic waste, according to the Times.
Thai officials say that 100 percent of the material imported in containers is examined for e-waste, but opponents claim that the true figures are more like 10 percent and that even then examiners are directed to what they can and cannot inspect, according to Somnuck Jongmeewasin, a lecturer in environmental management at Silpakorn University International College.
On top of that, in October of this year, the Thai legislature loosened labour and environmental regulations for all factories – a move that has benefited the e-waste industry.
At the same time, a draft bill that would ensure tighter control over Thailand’s electronic waste industry has languished in a legal stasis. “Thailand is welcoming environmental degradation with its own laws. There are so many loopholes and ways to escape punishment,” Jongmeewasin told The New York Times .
Thai NGOs like EARTH would like to see measures created to work with the ‘circular economy’ that already exists in the country to deal with potentially toxic waste.
According to Khun ‘Nit’ Pohjuhm, a refugee worker in Prachuap Kiri Kahn province, e-waste is already salvaged and separated for recycling centres. “Once the valuable parts are stripped, everything else is thrown into the incinerator. This is a different smell than burning rubbish, it’s toxic, it will make you sick,” he told FairPlanet.
A general push around the world has called for companies to be held accountable for the waste their products become. This is true from the smallest pieces of plastic that have become part of every living species on earth to the sachets that clog the waterways of the poorest countries. E-waste is no different.
“Members of the government may live far away from polluted areas, but toxic substances can spread and stay in the environment for a long time, even to the next generations. Sooner or later, the negative impact on the environment will affect everyone and the government will not be able to avoid the issue,” Penchom Saetang, director of EARTH, said in a statement.
Image by BRS MEAS