A circular economy is key to tackling e-waste crisis
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A circular economy is key to tackling e-waste crisis

One of the topics that has dominated the news cycle this month is the discovery of the gargantuan amount of illegally imported electronic waste (e-waste) stored at recycling plants across the country. To make that matter more dramatic, and somewhat more attention-grabbing, many of those plants were found to be owned by Chinese businessmen through the service of Thai “nominees”. With China deciding to ban all waste imports, questions were raised about whether Thailand would be one of the inevitable destinations for this waste.

While I personally concur with the government’s decision to enforce a ban on imported e-waste, I regard this issue as just a bit part of the main catastrophe. The elephant in the room is the question of how to efficiently, yet safely and in a sustainable way, manage the tsunamis of domestic e-waste that are to be created in the future.

While on the one hand we are ecstatic that electronic goods such as mobile phones and computers are getting cheaper and cheaper, we must also acknowledge the bitter fact that there will be a colossal upsurge in terms of the waste created tomorrow.

Even though on average e-waste makes up less than 5% of overall waste, approximately 70% is considered hazardous, making it essential that it is managed accordingly.

The mismanagement of electronic waste, as is the case today, does not only pose excessive damage to the environment, but also to human health.

Firstly, we toss them into landfills which allows dangerous metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury to leach into the soil and groundwater, and ultimately ends up inside us. This atrocious manifestation has led to many countries in Europe banning e-waste from being sent to landfills.

Secondly, much of it is incinerated, mostly in the open air. The burning of these products releases chemicals into the atmosphere which, like the former, are eventually absorbed by our body. Moreover, if e-waste is burned together with plastic, which is normally the case; then dioxins and furans -- extremely toxic chemicals which are cancer hazards and known to cause severe reproductive problems -- are also released.

So, how are we going to face this problem?

While many stress the end of the waste cycle, from collection to management and disposal, which is undoubtedly an utmost necessity, I would say the smart money must be put at the other end of the cycle -- at the beginning.

The epicentre of this approach is simply to reduce waste. While the concept is thrown around often, one serious mechanism is to change from today’s linear economy to the circular economy model.

Linear economy is the dominant business model with the philosophy of “produce-use-throw”. Raw materials are used to make a product for consumers and once its shelf-life has finished, it is thrown away and regarded as waste. Once mobile phone producers sold their phones to consumers, it is unlikely that they would see, or want to see, those products again.

However, in a circular economy, there is no such thing as waste. Producers design their products in a way that the materials are to be reused, not wasted. Rather than extracting more raw materials from nature, new products are carved out of materials from used ones. With this model in mind, producers would want to retrieve all of their sold products in order to get hold of the materials needed to produce new ones. That same mobile phone producer would now want to see their sold phones again. One perk of producers wanting to retrieve their products is that there is no longer any waste lying around for us to see.

The logistics of this model is that consumers actually lease a product from producers rather than owning it.

As ownership belongs to the producer, it would be their responsibility to fix the product when broken and retrieve it when it’s done.

Dutch lighting company Philips has fully integrated this model and boasted a current waste recycling rate of 81%. The success of a company the size of Philips shows that this model is not merely a romantic daydream but an achievable reality.

For Thailand, while a tough stance on imports is a start, the bull’s eye now relates to how to deal with domestic e-waste today and tomorrow. Getting rid of it in a manner that least affects the environment and human health is crucial. It is time we fully recognise the severity of this problem and take action.

Prom Vikitsreth is a former intern, Bangkok Post.

Prom Vikitsreth

Former intern, Bangkok Post

Prom Vikitsreth is a former intern, Bangkok Post.

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