• Why is Asia's Gadget Mountain an Environmental Disaster?

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Why is Asia's Gadget Mountain an Environmental Disaster?

Jan 20 2017

Asia is famously known as the home of innovative technology and new-fangled gadgetry, and it’s no surprise that the continent has the biggest market for electronics. In fact, almost 50% of all sales in the electronics and appliances industry take place there… but this also means the industry generates an incredible amount of waste.

Now, a new study from the United Nations University has highlighted the environmental and health risks posed by the rising amount of e-waste. Over the last five years, the volume of e-waste generated in East Asia has risen by a staggering 63%, holding grave implications for the health of individuals and the planet as a whole.

A colossal amount of e-waste

The study incorporated 12 countries in the East and South East Asia region – Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam – and found that combined, the nations produced 12.3 million tonnes of e-waste between 2010 and 2015. To put that in perspective, it’s roughly two-and-a-half times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

Where has all this waste come from? Well, the study identified four key reasons why the region has devoured so many electronics in the last five years. Firstly, the increased number of gadgets on the market (including Smartphones, tablets, watches, etc.) means that there is much more choice for consumers, while the consumer market itself in Asia is growing thanks to ballooning populations and the rise of the middle class.

What’s more, the fact that new products and updates are coming out all of the time means that old models quickly become obsolete (either due to incompatibility with new systems or just from fashion), generating more waste, while improper e-waste disposal legislation exacerbates matters.

An environmental and health disaster waiting to happen

The waste is normally either incinerated or recycled in a crude manner, both of which contribute to environmental and health concerns on a large scale. Amateur recyclers generally attempt to remove precious metals such as gold, silver, copper and palladium via crude acid baths, which in turn releases a whole host of unwanted pollutants into the atmosphere.

“Open burning and acid bath recycling in the informal sector have serious negative impacts on processers’ occupational health,” explained Shunichi Honda, co-author of the study. “In the absence of protective materials such as gloves, glasses, masks, etc., inhalation of and exposure to hazardous chemicals and substances directly affect workers’ health.”

“Associations have been reported between exposure from improper treatment of e-waste and altered thyroid function, reduced lung function, negative birth outcomes, reduced childhood growth, negative mental health outcomes, impaired cognitive development, cytotoxicity and genotoxicity.”

Tighter legislation needed

At present, only Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have adequate procedures in place for the safe disposal of electronics. Some countries do prohibit the import of e-waste and of second-hand electronics – but not many. As such, more comprehensive legislation needs to be introduced, especially in the cases of Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, where a framework does not yet exist.

In other industries, such as plastic and rubber, green manufacturing is slowly becoming the norm – of course, the complicated circuitry and advanced technology involved in electronics would make a similar approach nigh-on impossible.

In the face of that, the only responsible course of action is to ensure that e-waste is properly disposed of – and that will only arrive with the appropriate legislation.

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