Laying waste to Thailand's bounty
Bangkok Post 11 June 2018 | Lamonphet Apisitniran and Komsan Tortermvasana
A country long known for its natural beauty is slowly sinking beneath an island of electronic refuse being shipped in from its more affluent neighbours.
The old Thai saying of nai nam mee pla, nai na mee khao (fish in the waters, rice in the fields), which hails the country's abundance of food and natural resources, is barely applicable to modern-day Thailand, as decades of industrialisation and improper e-waste management have risked turning the Land of Smiles into a dumping ground for hazardous materials.
Electronic waste has long afflicted Southeast Asia's second-largest economy, but recent news reports have begun to raise public awareness of the ever-accumulating electronic offal.
A policeman guards mountains of electronic waste during an official check at a recycling plant at Klong Laan, Pathum Thani province. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)
Police at Laem Chabang port, on the Eastern Seaboard, on May 29 displayed seven shipping containers, each packed with 22 tonnes of discarded electronics, including crushed game consoles, computer boards and bags packed with scrap material.
According to Department of Industrial Works data, 53,000 tonnes of e-waste is legally imported from Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore into Thailand each year.
The increase in dumping has only intensified after China moved to stop accepting foreign trash last year, telling the World Trade Organization it would no longer accept 24 types of foreign waste and leading some to fear that the refuse could end up in neighbouring countries.
Environmentalists say waste once destined for China is being rerouted to Southeast Asia, and either new laws are needed or existing laws should be enforced to prevent illegal imports.
Thailand in 1997 ratified the Basel Convention, which aims to control trans-boundary movements of hazardous waste. But the convention does not completely prohibit these exports from more-developed to less-developed countries.
"The Basel Convention cannot prevent what is happening in Thailand because it has its limitations," said Penchom Saetang, director of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand. She has called for an amendment that would ban such shipments.
The government recently uncovered instances of hazardous waste being dumped in Thailand, prompting it to ratchet up inspection scrutiny of four of seven companies that have licences to import hazardous e-waste from abroad.
The Industry Ministry has approved imports of hazardous waste and chemical waste, including electronic circuit boards, mobile and smart phone batteries and steel scraps from JPS Metal Group Co, Yong Thung Thai Co, OGI Co, SS Import-Export International Co, Virogreen Thailand Co, Ming Engineering Thailand and Fuji Xerox Eco Manufacturing Co.
Last year, those firms imported 53,000 tonnes of chemical waste and exported 430,000 tonnes, according to the Industry Ministry.
Thailand imports 37,000 tonnes of hazardous and chemical waste each year and exports 136,000 tonnes.
Deputy Industry Minister Somchai Harnhiran said companies importing hazardous waste are being inspected on suspicion of violating the Hazardous Substance Act and the Basel Convention.
The government inspected those seven companies last week and found that four had been active at illicit recycling factories, where they had been importing and processing toxic e-waste illegally.
The four companies are JPS Metal Group Co, which has capacity for waste management of 60,000 tonnes per year; Yong Thung Thai Co, a smelting metal and iron steel company with waste management capacity of 30,000 tonnes per year; OGI Co, a steel and metal import business with waste management capacity of 50,000 tonnes per year; and SS Import-Export International Co, with waste management capacity of 14,000 tonnes per year.
"The government suspended the factory licences of these four companies last week and we are in the process of inspecting Virogreen Thailand Co, with the results of that inspection forthcoming," Mr Somchai said.
Two other companies, Ming Engineering Thailand and Fuji Xerox Eco Manufacturing Co, were found to have legal waste management operations in Thailand, he said. Ming Engineering's waste management capacity is 786 tonnes per year, while Fuji Xerox's is 7,000 tonnes.
Most of the illegally imported and processed e-waste is in Chachoengsao, Samut Prakan, Ayutthaya, Chon Buri and Bangkok, according to the Industry Ministry.
Electronic waste is largely imported from Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Britain.
While the government has approved an import licence for plastic waste for 26 companies, the government is inspecting imported plastic from 17 companies, two of whose licences have been revoked. The government will complete a full inspection this week.
The government predicts that 31 million tonnes of electronic and hazardous waste will be recycled this year, with 2 million tonnes designated as hazardous waste and the rest as general waste. If 10% of recycling output cannot be treated, that waste will be incinerated or sent to landfills.
Mr Somchai said the government will also uphold its inspection mandate to examine electronic waste segregation plants for 148 companies in Thailand.
Customs Department director-general Kulit Sombatsiri said the government will uphold its policy of inspecting imported hazardous and chemical waste.
"At present, 600 containers per month or 7,200 containers per year of imported hazardous and chemical waste passes through deep-sea ports in Thailand," Mr Kulit said.
Imported waste that companies have reported to the government mostly consists of electronic components such as computer parts and plastic, he said.
"The Customs Department has a duty to inspect imported goods, and we have no regulations to withdraw or cancel imported waste licences," Mr Kulit said. "The Industry Ministry is empowered for this task."
Not a total ban
If e-waste is not processed properly and gets dumped in landfills, harmful substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium can leak, leading to health problems, said DIW director-general Mongkol Pruekwatana.
"Our short-term solution is to strictly inspect all 148 electronic waste recycling factories nationwide," he said. "If irregularities are found during the inspections, the factories will be charged with violating the law. And if the wrongdoers are factories licensed to import electronic waste from abroad, their licences will be revoked."
Unauthorised imports of e-waste, or false customs declarations, will result in legal penalties for importers, some as high as two years' imprisonment, Mr Mongkol said.
Regarding a long-term solution, he said his agency is considering banning recycling factories from importing certain types of e-waste that negatively impact the environment and communities.
Thailand should not impose a total ban on importing e-waste, he said, as the recycling processes of some types can still benefit the economy, but the process must be done using the appropriate technology.
"There are valuable materials that can be recovered from the waste of electrical equipment and electronics, but we may have to choose what kind of e-waste is worth importing, ensuring it will be handled at the proper facilities that use advanced technology and pollution control methods," Mr Mongkol said.
Campaigns to reduce e-waste
The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), as Thailand's telecom regulator, has demanded a permanent ban on all used components from telecom devices, including long-outdated models of smartphones from abroad, to cut down on the e-waste scourge.
The NBTC has taken three approaches towards e-waste alleviation by imposing conditions upon issuing licences, issuing awareness campaigns and cooperating with other organisations.
According to NBTC secretary-general Takorn Tantasith, some companies have requested permission to import used telecom devices and components into the country over the past two years.
But the NBTC rejected those requests, saying such imports were illegal because they constituted toxic e-waste.
The prohibition of importing these items is aimed at breaking the cycle of using these components for the manufacture of new products, which will add to the e-waste burden down the road, along with the concurrent burden to eliminate it.
E-waste management is mandatory for telecom licensees under corporate social responsibility (CSR) guidelines.
Thailand's first telecom spectrum auction for the 2.1-gigahertz bandwidth spectrum dates back to 2012. In that auction, Advanced Info Service Plc, Total Access Communication Plc and True Corp Plc each won a licence, thus falling under the CSR plan.
That plan covers e-waste management, users' health and a risk management plan for rapidly changing technologies. Each licensee must submit a CSR plan to the NBTC before launching its service.
In practice, e-waste management plans proposed by licensees (mobile operators) differ from case to case, but most of them include a programme whereby customers can turn in their old mobile phones for newer models. Older phones must then be properly recycled and disposed of.
One licensee has a battery regeneration programme to extend the life of batteries used in cell stations, thus helping to reduce e-waste. Another has a continuous public relations programme to educate and raise awareness regarding e-waste and set up disposal points for old phones and batteries.
The telecom regulator also takes responsibility for reducing e-waste through campaigns.
In May 2014, the NBTC organised a campaign, "Return Old Batteries to Save the World", which included an exhibition, a talk show and distribution of disposal boxes for old mobile phones and batteries.
The boxes were designed to safely collect batteries and phones while preventing passers-by or criminals from reaching into them.
Last but not least, the NBTC has been cooperating with other organisations on projects to cut back on e-waste. Those efforts have extended to the Pollution Control Department, the Public Relations Department and the Department of Environmental Quality Promotion.
Ultimately, the projects aim to raise public awareness of the impact from e-waste and provide campaigns for people to dispose of old mobile phones at designated disposal points.
Telecom operators and mobile phone vendors were also asked to set up disposal boxes with the project's logo at their service centres, so that phones and batteries can be recycled and disposed of properly.