Laws concerning e-waste imports must be strictly enforced, and offenders held to account.
The discovery that massive quantities of electronic waste are being illegally imported into Thailand has triggered concern that the country is becoming a new dumping ground for the world’s e-waste.
E-waste comprises discarded electrical or electronic devices. These electronic scrap components contain highly toxic substances such as lead and cadmium. Without proper treatment, e-waste can pollute the environment and threaten the health of people.
In fact, e-waste from televisions, audio equipment, computers, mobile phones and other handheld devices also contain valuable elements such as silver, copper and gold that can be recycled.
Several tonnes of electronic waste have been imported into Thailand for the extraction of valuable elements. The owners of e-waste processing plants make money from selling the valuable elements while the useless remnants mostly become landfill.
There is no problem if the remaining e-waste is treated properly, in line with laws on public health and the environment. But that is not the case for many e-waste processing plants.
Some e-waste separation businesses were found to be operating outside the law regarding import, transport and separation of e-waste, according to Deputy National Police Commissioner Pol General Wirachai Songmetta. Those firms operate 26 waste plants and are owned by foreigners, said Wirachai. “Electronic waste from every corner of the world is flowing into Thailand,” he added.
Customs authorities recently intercepted several containers stuffed with e-waste smuggled into the country that was falsely reported as ordinary garbage. Illegal importation of e-waste into Thailand began ramping up last year when China cracked down on the practice. China used to be one of the world’s premier dumping grounds for discarded electronics. Beijing’s ban on the importation of dozens of types of foreign waste led to fears that the discarded items would just end up elsewhere in the region. And Thailand could become one of the biggest dumping grounds for e-waste, experts warned.
Thailand needs to heed that warning and ensure better enforcement of the laws to combat the smuggling of e-waste. Illegal imports of hazardous waste are punishable by imprisonment and hefty fines. The laws are already in place, but lax enforcement is leaving loopholes for smugglers.
The fact that a lot of discarded electronics were smuggled through the country’s ports has led to suspicion that corrupt officials at state agencies may have facilitated the illegal imports and their false reporting as permissible materials. Urgently required are more careful checks on containers coming into the country. And tougher measures should be taken to prevent acts by corrupt officials looking for bribes.
Also, Thai authorities should be more aggressive in invoking the United Nations Basel Convention of 1992, which controls the trans-boundary movement and disposal of hazardous waste and e-waste. Thailand has been a signatory of the international treaty since 1997. An extension of the convention, the Basel Ban Amendment, specifically bans members of the wealthy Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries from exporting e-waste to non-OECD states.
In addition to preventing illegal imports of discarded electronics, authorities also have to ensure that e-waste from local consumption and lawful imports are processed properly and safely, for the sake of public health and the environment. Improper treatment of e-waste can lead to toxic byproducts, sicknesses from pollution and a contaminated environment.