E-waste plant fight hits home
Bangkok Post 10 June 2018 | Dumrongkiat Mala
Chachoengsao village splits after one group succeeded in having illegal polluting factories shut down, only to throw other locals out of work
Until a month ago, Somsri Wichianchai, a villager of Ban Klong Song in Chachoengsao's Plaeng Yao district, had to keep the windows of her house sealed to escape the acrid smell caused by waste recycling factories nearby.
Ms Somsri's house was often blanketed by a cloud of smoke as it is surrounded by three e-waste recycling plants that melt down parts of old electric appliances to extract valuable metals like gold, silver and copper.
"The acrid smoke burned our noses and throats. Those of us who live nearby the plants had to put on masks when we went outside. Masks became a daily accessory," Ms Somsri said.
Another resident of Ban Klong Song, Kaysorn Chalothorn, also said she often had trouble breathing when the wind blew noxious smells towards her house.
"We used to have fresh air and a normal country life until Chinese businessmen came and built these recycling factories about a year and a half ago," Ms Kaysorn said.
Ms Kaysorn said when the plants conducted public meetings and hearings with locals, they promised to install measures to ameliorate the harm, such as waste water treatment systems, and air pollution controls on waste incinerators. As well, all the waste was to be stored indoors to help protect the village from pollution. However, they failed to keep their promises.
Both Somsri and Kaysorn said they complained to the plants, but the factories never really looked into the matter.
So, the 35 villagers in Ban Klong Song affected by the pollution, including these two, went to the state-run Damrongtham Centre in Chachoengsao to lodge a petition, asking the Department of Industrial Works (DIW) to inspect the waste recycling plants.
"We could not stand it any more because we are concerned about the long-term health and wellbeing of our family members. We are also concerned the waste water released by the factories might be contaminated with harmful substances," Ms Somsri said.
A team police and industry ministry officials inspected the plants last month. They found the factories were operating without proper permission as their licences allow them only to separate unusable materials, not process them.
Nearly 100 tonnes of electronic waste such as discarded computers, computer display screens, old mobile phones and other items were found to have been molded into metal sheets and ready for workers to recycle or discard by burning. Most workers handling the toxic waste were found to be undocumented and untrained Lao and Myanmar migrants.
Pol Gen Wirachai Songmetta, who led the operation, said the factories also violated the Hazardous Substance Act and the Basel Convention by smuggling hazardous industrial waste from abroad to be processed at their facilities.
The police said the hazardous electric waste was imported from Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom. He said burning electronic circuit boards to extract heavy metals risks contamination the surrounding environment, while hard plastic parts are toxic when burnt or can take thousands of years to break down when buried.
"Hazardous industrial waste requires specific and proper disposal methods as the process can cause the leakage of harmful substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium which can cause cancer in humans," he added.
In response, the DIW shut down the factories and charged the owners with illegal smuggling of electronic waste. The DIW also ordered nationwide action and instructed local Provincial Industry Offices to inspect all 148 electronic-waste recycling plants in their areas to ensure factory operations are in line with laws and regulations.
Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha has thrown his full support behind the nationwide inspection of the e-waste recycling business, stressing the urgency of strict law enforcement and improvement of business operations. At least two more factories, one in Samut Prakan province and another in Samut Songkram, have been found violating the law by piling up waste outdoors.
Meanwhile, five out of seven factories which hold licences to import electronic waste from abroad were also found breaching the law by importing types of waste they are not allowed to bring into the country, or passing on waste to factories which dispose of hazardous waste through improper and careless methods.
DIW director-general Mongkol Pruekwatana yesterday said the importing of electronic waste into Thailand now can be done only with approval and under strict control from the authorities.
Mr Mongkol said all imports of electronic waste must also be approved by the country of origin in accordance with the Basel Convention, adding import approval will only be granted to factories intending to use these components as raw material, not for reselling, with the quantity appropriate to the factory's manufacturing capacity.
However, he said the problem now is some recycling plants illegally import and process electronic waste using a legal loophole that permits the importation of second-hand appliances even though their licences allow them to separate only unusable materials.
"Our short-term solution is to strictly inspect all 148 electronic waste recycling factories across the country. If irregularities are found during the inspection, the factories will be charged. And if the wrongdoers are factories licensed to import electronic waste from abroad, their licences will be revoked," he said, adding unauthorised imports of electronic waste, or false custom declarations, will result in penalties to importers, which could be as high as two years' imprisonment.
For a long-term solution, Mr Mongkol said his agency is considering banning recycling factories from importing certain types of e-waste that have negative impacts on the environment and communities. The laws governing recycling businesses will also be revised to fix a loophole.
THAILAND: A NEW DUMPING GROUND FOR ELECTRONIC WASTE?
According to the DIW's data, about 53,000 tonnes of e-waste are legally imported from Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore into Thailand per year, but the amount of smuggled waste is not known.
The Basel Action Network (BAN), a toxic trade watchdog organisation, recently released a report which said Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia could become a major dumping ground for e-waste after China, the biggest waste importer, last year imposed a ban on 24 types of foreign waste including e-waste.
"China's actions appear to have resulted in a migration of the dirty e-waste recycling industry to Southeast Asia," said BAN director Jim Puckett.
Mr Puckett warned that we may be witnessing the first signs of what could very well turn out to be a tsunami of waste being diverted from China to new landfalls in Southeast and South Asia. "New laws are needed or existing laws better enforced to prevent illegal imports," he said.
The BAN director praised Thailand for being proactive. However, in his opinion, Thailand and other Asian countries should quickly apply the same border controls and enforcement as China or else they can expect to be the target of illegal and highly polluting shipments of electronic and other wastes.
The BAN also called on governments of the region to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment as the convention now does not completely prohibit these exports from more developed to less developed countries.
Mr Puckett said Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos have yet to ratify the amendment. China, Indonesia, and Malaysia, on the other hand, have ratified.
"Sadly, most of this toxic electronic junk comes from unscrupulous recyclers in the US -- a country that is not even a Basel Convention Party," said Mr Puckett. "But by ratifying the BAN amendment, countries like Thailand can send a strong global message that will be impossible for the US or other countries to ignore and that is...Don't Dump on Us!"
Tara Buakamsri, Thailand Country Director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said the latest arrests barely scratch the surface, adding there are hundreds of recycling factories smuggling e-waste and non-recyclable waste from other countries.
"This low-grade waste will become landfill and pollute the environment. Some will also be burned and release toxic emissions," Mr Tara said.
Mr Tara said the Industry Ministry must revise the laws governing recycling businesses by imposing a total ban on the importation of low-grade and toxic waste.
"Thailand does not have the capacity to examine all the waste that is imported, so it would be more realistic to stop all of these imports," he said, adding the factories can still do business by taking in local waste.
ONGOING CONFLICT IN BAN KLONG SONG
Back at Ban Klong Song, although all three illegal e-waste recycling plants have been shut down and villagers can now breathe fresh air again, the villagers who requested the factories be closed are still unable to return to their normal lives as they have been boycotted by many residents who lost benefits when factories were closed.
"Now, many people in the village hate me and the others who filed a petition requesting the factories be closed. They don't talk to us anymore. They blame us for exaggerating the situation," Ms Somsri said.
Assistant village headman Tanok Dechpipat admitted villagers are now divided into two groups, both for and against the plants.
Mr Tanok said the group that supports the shut-down live nearby the plants and were affected directly by the acrid smoke, while the other group tend to have supplied workers to the factories and were dependent on their wages.
"I want to see people unite, not divide. Nevertheless, I think people should not value money over their health. They should have some concern for future generations because they are the ones who are going to live on this land after we're all gone," he said.
Mr Tanok urged government agencies to send health experts to Ban Klong Song to educate villagers so they realise that e-waste dumping can pose a serious threat to health and the environment if it is not done properly.