To generate extra income, farmers in Tambon Khok Sa-at in Kalasin have been collecting and separating discarded electronic products, or e-waste, in between harvests since 1996.
The practice has often brought them more income than farming. But along with the extra cash came illnesses attributed to prolonged exposure to toxic substances. Most farmers do not take protective measures, like wearing gloves or other protective clothing. Also, parts of e-waste that could not be sold was burnt, causing atmospheric pollution.
"E-waste contains heavy metals and plastic, which contain toxic components. If waste management is not controlled properly, hazardous components, which contain carcinogens, can be released into the environment," said Penchom Saetang, director of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand (Earth).
Earth, along with the environmental NGO Arnika, recently made a statement urging the government to terminate hazardous waste imports and dirty recycling industries as well as to ratify the Basel Convention Ban Amendment, an agreement that prohibits the export of plastic and electronic waste to developing countries.
The lack of efficient waste management in Thailand -- especially electronic waste -- makes the situation worse. According to statistics from Earth, 400,000 tonnes of electronic appliances and devices are discarded each year in Thailand which should be enough for the local recycling business. However, Industrial Works reported that imported e-waste increased from almost 2,000 tonnes in 2016 to over 54,000 in tonnes 2017. Following such a huge surge, the Commerce Ministry last year announced a ban on the import of 428 types of e-waste with an aim of helping Thailand reduce the amount of e-waste. However, many loopholes remain.
The ministry's move banned hazardous waste defined by the Basel Convention -- an international treaty aimed at controlling the transboundary movement of hazardous waste as well as its disposal.
However, other used materials, such as cell phones, batteries, accumulators, laptops, keyboards and desktop computers are still allowed to be imported into the country.
"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. We found that from last September to April, 28.85 million kilogrammes of used electronic waste was imported into Thailand as foreign countries exploited a loophole in Thailand's regulations," said Akarapon Teebthaisong, research and technical officer for Earth.
In addition to the ministerial regulation's loophole, only 10% of trash containers that arrive in Thailand are inspected by the Customs Department, which possibly allows the entry of banned e-wastes into the country.
Discarded electronics require an efficient and highly regulated waste management system to handle hazardous components like lead, mercury and cadmium. Akarapon said improper recycling processes in Thailand have a negative effect on air, soil, and water.
"Thailand lacks efficient e-waste management. After electronic products are dumped, they are separated to sell parts. Parts that cannot be sold are burnt, buried or thrown away. Burning e-waste releases a residue of carcinogens into the environment causing severe air pollution because the air will consist of a mixture of cancer-causing chemicals," Penchom said.
Tara Buakamsri, country director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said most e-waste goes to "dirty recycling industries" or improper recycling factories.
"We are not against efficient recycling factories but dirty recycling industries have a negative impact on our environment and communities and we gain a very small benefit from this industry. E-waste in Thailand is more than enough for recycling businesses; we do not need imported e-waste," said Tara.
European Union countries have Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment regulations (WEEE) that aim to contribute to sustainable production and consumption.
Tara notes that WEEE's regulations require electronic manufacturers to be responsible for the "entire lifecycle of their products from designing to final disposal".
"In 2016, Greenpeace urged Apple to use more recycled materials to produce their products and Apple changed its materials after our urge," he said.
Penchom explained that the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility was developed so that manufacturers take back their devices to be disposed of properly and safely.
Representatives from both environmental groups said Thailand lacks strong laws that regulate and control e-waste. A proposed EPR bill for e-waste management has been under consideration by the Office of the Council of State for several years.
"During this process, we cannot request information concerning how the bill has changed and developed," Penchom said.
In response, environmental groups have been busy drafting another bill on waste management that promotes recycling through the circular economy concept.
"The idea of the circular economy is to promote waste sorting at its source. Plastic, glass and e-waste or hazardous waste are separated at households or companies so less garbage goes to landfills. Then, recyclable materials will go through a recycling or reuse process. This is a long-term solution that can reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills or is burned," said Penchom.
Penchom said another issue in Thailand is that the country has lax enforcement on quality assurance policies of recycling factories. Tara added that the Kingdom lacks an environmental restoration programme.
"In the US, the federal superfund programme collects money from companies that pollute in order to restore contaminated lands. However, people who live in polluted areas in Thailand do not have any support for restoration. Environmental restoration does not cost much but we lack the funds," said Tara.
Earth and Greenpeace have said Thailand should ban all types of imported e-waste and endorse the Basel Convention. Once Thailand ratifies the Basel agreement, the legal loopholes allowing some e-waste imports will be closed.
"Authorities are still reviewing details of the amendment. If Thailand ratifies this agreement, amendments to local laws must be made in order to comply with the Basel Convention Ban Amendment," Akarapon said.
In the meantime, Tara said that Thai people can help reduce e-waste by using their electronic devices for as long as possible. Penchom says people should sort waste and separate hazardous waste from other kinds of waste. The private sector should support the EPR law and the government should take the e-waste issue seriously.
"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 said.