Right-to-repair movement could curb e-waste
The volume of electronic goods thrown away continues to climb every year, reaching a record 53.6 million tonnes in 2019. Experts predict this number will grow by 3-4% annually, and even the most aggressive recycling efforts will have little effect -- of the 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste created in 2019, only 9.3 million tonnes were recycled.
For decades, much of the e-waste from western countries was sent to Asia for processing. That changed in 2018 when China, which imported 70% of the world's e-waste, announced it would end the practice by December 2020. Soon afterward, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and other countries announced plans for similar laws, many of which will come into effect in the next few years.
Thailand's own e-waste law, drafted in 2018, came into effect last September and places a total ban on 428 items.
These changes have made the question of what happens to electronic devices at the end of their life cycle a more pressing issue for exporting countries. Part of the problem is that most devices are designed to be difficult to repair, and so it becomes easier -- often cheaper -- to just buy new ones. But that might be changing.
A new law in France mandates manufacturers to provide a repairability rating for their devices based on how easy they are to disassemble and the availability of spare parts. In the US, the right-to-repair movement has gained widespread support from consumer rights organisations, politicians and the public.
Both of these efforts aim to inform consumers whether their device can be fixed easily, while enabling them to fix it themselves or at an independent repair shop outside of the manufacturer's control.
Such decisions would have significant financial consequences for both consumers and electronics manufacturers. A report by the US Public Interest Research Group found that if US consumers were able to repair their products more easily, they could use them longer, saving US$40 billion per year. Of course, such a move would reduce the revenue and profits of electronics brands.
There is also the problem of electronic devices using up finite materials. Indium, which is used in the production of touch-sensitive screens, has an end-of-life recycling rate of less than 1%, despite experts estimating that the available supply will be depleted within 10 years. Devices make use of many such scarce resources.
However, western countries are not the only ones to blame. Asia produces almost half of the world's e-waste, with consumer electronics consumption growing at 29% per year, far above the global average of 10%.
When countries reject e-waste imports they will simply be sent elsewhere, most likely Africa. The only way to really solve the problem is by adjusting the behaviour of consumers and manufacturers, which could be changing due to the right-to-repair movement.
These powerful new regulations, plus the growing list of countries refusing to import e-waste, may signal a tipping point in the move to both extend the life of our ubiquitous gadgets and reduce the mountains of e-waste imported to Asia.
Dr Thaweelap Rittapirom is a director and executive vice-president of Bangkok Bank. For more columns in this series, please visit www.bangkokbank.com