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East meets Waste: tech waste piling up in Asia

The Asian tech boom isn’t being matched by e-waste recycling plans The Asian tech boom isn’t being matched by e-waste recycling plans JIM XU/getty images;
14 Mar
Asia not only manufacturers most of the world’s electronic goods, it now consumes the most as well. Without sophisticated recycling systems, e-waste is piling up

As electronic appliances have become more affordable and more in-demand across Asia, electronic waste has boomed. New data published by the United Nations University (UNU) reveals a jump of 63 per cent in e-waste between 2010 and 2015, with China alone more than doubling its amount across that timeframe – an increase of 107 per cent, contributing 6.7 million of the total 12.3 million tonnes found across the 12 countries surveyed. Asia now represents not only the primary manufacturing sites for electronic appliances, but also the primary consumption market, purchasing nearly half of all 56.5 million tonnes of electronic items sold.

‘This is alarming,’ says Ruediger Kuehr, Head of the Sustainable Cycles Programme at UNU.

When it comes to consumption of electronic equipment, because of the increasing middle-classes in East and Southeast Asia we can expect a further substantial increase, maybe even an explosion

Some countries in the region, such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, are noted as having the most developed and sophisticated e-waste recycling systems, while China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam are seen as being ‘in transition’; less developed, but making their way along a similar trajectory. Others, such as Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, have the worst e-waste recycling systems in the region, relying primarily on informal approaches. It is here where practices that are hazardous to both environmental and peoples’ health take place, such as open burning and ‘backyard recycling’, where crude methods such as acid baths are used to try and obtain traces of the valuable metals inside waste products.

‘A lot of people see e-waste as offering them an opportunity for developing their own business, especially those in developing countries who want to earn a living somehow,’ says Kuehr. ‘There is gold and other precious metals, but in very low quantities.’

This was published in the March 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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