The Price of Recycling Old Laptops: Toxic Fumes in Thailand’s Lungs
The New York Times 08 December 2019 | By Hannah Beech and Ryn Jirenuwat
The e-waste industry is booming in Southeast Asia, frightening residents worried for their health. Despite a ban on imports, Thailand is a center of the business.
KOH KHANUN, Thailand — Crouched on the ground in a dimly lit factory, the women picked through the discarded innards of the modern world: batteries, circuit boards and bundles of wires.
They broke down the scrap — known as e-waste — with hammers and raw hands. Men, some with faces wrapped in rags to repel the fumes, shoveled the refuse into a clanking machine that salvages usable metal.
As they toiled, smoke spewed over nearby villages and farms. Residents have no idea what is in the smoke: plastic, metal, who knows? All they know is that it stinks and they feel sick.
The factory, New Sky Metal, is part of a thriving e-waste industry across Southeast Asia, born of China’s decision to stop accepting the world’s electronic refuse, which was poisoning its land and people. Thailand in particular has become a center of the industry even as activists push back and its government wrestles to balance competing interests of public safety with the profits to be made from the lucrative trade.
Last year, Thailand banned the import of foreign e-waste. Yet new factories are opening across the country, and tons of e-waste are being processed, environmental monitors and industry experts say.
“E-waste has to go somewhere,” said Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network, which campaigns against trash dumping in poor countries, “and the Chinese are simply moving their entire operations to Southeast Asia.”
“The only way to make money is to get huge volume with cheap, illegal labor and pollute the hell out of the environment,” he added.
Each year, 50 million tons of electronic waste are produced globally, according to the United Nations, as consumers grow accustomed to throwing away last year’s model and acquiring the next new thing.
The notion of recycling these gadgets sounds virtuous: an infinite loop of technological utility.
But it is dirty and dangerous work to extract the tiny quantities of precious metals — like gold, silver and copper — from castoff phones, computers and televisions.
For years, China took in much of the world’s electronic refuse. Then in 2018, Beijing closed its borders to foreign e-waste. Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia — with their lax enforcement of environmental laws, easily exploited labor force and cozy nexus between business and government — saw an opportunity.
“Every circuit and every cable is very lucrative, especially if there is no concern for the environment or for workers,” said Penchom Saetang, the head of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand, an environmental watchdog.