Recycled electronics are turning Thailand into a 'dumping ground for hazardous waste'
ABC Australia 16 July 2019 | Kathryn Diss
Electronic waste from Western countries, including Australia, is flooding the shores of South-East Asian nations like Thailand, sparking fears of air and water pollution.
Global waste markets were upended in 2018 when China implemented tough new import restrictions on plastic and e-waste materials from foreign nations, forcing countries to find new markets.
Australia is among the countries taking advantage of the lax environmental regulations in Asia, redirecting trash China will no longer take to countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
But the rapid shift in global markets has had a devastating flow-on effect to communities now dealing with a flood of contaminated waste.
In Thailand, scores of new sorting and recycling companies — many of them illegal and with Chinese shareholders — have sprung up in provinces surrounding the country's main port of Laem Chabang.
The agricultural district of Chachoengsao, east of Bangkok, is one of the provinces which became a dumping ground for e-waste.
Local villager Payao Charoonwong said she has lost her main water source as a result.
"I have been using water in this well for 20 years for cooking, boiling and drinking. But the condition of the water in the well is not usable anymore," Ms Charoonwong said.
Her once peaceful property amid vast cassava fields was transformed in late 2017, when a nearby Chinese-run factory started bringing in truckloads of foreign e-waste items such as crushed computers, circuit boards and cables.
It is a lucrative business for recyclers who mine the electronics for valuable metal components like copper, silver and gold.
But the items also contain lead, cadmium and mercury, which are highly toxic if mishandled during processing.
Apart from feeling faint from noxious fumes emitted during processing, Ms Charoonwong claimed the factory has also contaminated her water.
"When it was raining, the water went through the pile of waste and passed our house and went into the soil and water system.
"The water started to change from clear water to orange colour. There was a bad smell — very bad — and there are toxic chemicals," she said.
Ms Charoonwong said their once bountiful cassava harvests were now rotting.
Water tests conducted in the province by environmental group Earth and the local government both found toxic levels of iron, manganese, lead, nickel and in some cases arsenic and cadmium.
"The communities observed when they used water from the shallow well, there was some development of skin disease or there are foul smells," founder of EARTH, Penchom Saetang said.
"This is proof, that it is true, as the communities suspected, there are problems happening to their water sources."
Australia among e-waste offenders in Thailand
Police raided the factory and found the Chinese firm had no licence to operate and was illegally processing foreign waste.
It was ordered to shut down, but locals claim trucks are continuing to deliver electronics there.
This is just a fraction of the e-waste flowing in to the country, with Thailand's weak environmental laws making it easy for traders to breach the border.
"It is obvious that e-waste is being imported into Thailand rapidly and in huge amounts, making Thailand the dumping ground for hazardous waste," Ms Saetang said.
"We have collected the top 10 [nations] exporting e-waste into Thailand which include China, the USA, the UK, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Australia, who are exporting a huge amount of e-waste to Thailand."
Thai Customs data shows Australia sent more than 250,000 kilograms of electronic scraps, battery parts and machinery to Thailand last year — 500 times the amount shipped in 2017.
But this is just one category of e-waste coming in.
There are many others which are less regulated and more difficult to monitor.
The jump in imports from the west and parts of North Asia is fuelling a boom in Chinese scrap processing facilities, which are relocating their businesses to continue cashing on the lucrative trade.
"We found that it seems like an underground network of illegal practice of Chinese factories or businesses," Ms Saetang said.
Investigations by a team of environmental scientists and engineers at Earth uncovered illegal activities by Chinese firms, which have led to a number of high-profile police raids in recent months.
"There are increasing numbers of Chinese factories located in these provinces of Thailand, operating recycling of plastic, e-waste and certain types of hazardous waste," she said.
South-East Asian nations fed up with becoming the world's dumping ground are now pushing back against the rising flood of imports.
Indonesia last week declared it would send eight shipping containers of paper back to Australia after it found household garbage including nappies and electronics inside.
The containers were deemed contaminated by toxic or hazardous materials.
Malaysia and the Philippines have also started sending unwanted trash back to its source while others, like Thailand, are vowing to strengthen their environmental laws.
As developing nations revolt, pressure is mounting on countries like Australia to develop an onshore processing industry for coping with the global shift in waste markets.
In a statement, the Australian Government said it had not received any reports of improper exports to Thailand but was committed to stamping out bad behaviour, if companies were found to be violating Australian law.