EARTH Thailand

Get e-waste under control

Bangkok Post 25 June 2018 | EDITORIAL

The fast-emerging scandal of the dumping of electronic waste illustrates just how far behind, and how out of touch authorities are in battling corruption. Of course the e-waste story involves flaunting of the law. But it shows just how simple it is to ignore laws, bypass regulations and fool government. The days of furtive corruption involving suitcases full of cash are gone. Some call the new-style corruption more sophisticated but it is actually more thuggish.

The e-waste story began benignly and positively. Several government departments -- the Department of Industrial Works, the Customs Department and others -- talked over a proposal by five companies. The businesses outlined a plan for recycling. The plan called for the firms to aggregate electronic waste in Thailand with a modest amount of imported waste. The discarded old mobile phones, computers, memory boards and much more would be stripped under safe conditions for re-use.

Factories were authorised. Regulators were assigned. Business-government ties were established. And virtually from the start, poachers, pirates and just plain "business mafia" groups horned in on this excellent plan. It all went bad virtually from the start of the plan to make Thailand a minor recycling centre. The number of registered plants and e-waste importers have passed 100, but the truth is that no one in government or law-enforcement has any idea of the magnitude of this business.

There are obvious problems with all of this. The first is that Thais don't want their country littered with imported rubbish. There is far more local trash than can properly be handled. Indeed, the e-waste scandal and criminal activities came to national attention immediately after the revelations over Thailand's massive problem of plastic rubbish. Most people were not aware until recently that this country is the fifth biggest ocean polluter in the world, despite having a small coastline compared with so many other nations.

The e-waste scandal is unconscionable because of the law-breaking, the intrusion on villages and the growth of corruption in the recycling industry. But there is one major reason that authorities deserve criticism and must strive to control e-waste recycling. It is because electronic waste is collectively toxic and an actual threat to those living around unregulated recycling plants. The mountains of electronic waste that are still growing in Thailand are analogous to the old battery factories that dotted the country as recently as the 1980s. Lead from the unregulated waste, and from leaded gasoline, did terrible damage to the children who lived nearby. The numbers never will be know, but lead waste ruined the lives of at least thousands of 20th century children.

To put it briefly, e-waste is the most dangerous rubbish on the planet. Countries are thrilled to ship it overseas, and delighted to learn that importers and half-knowledgeable, non-regulated factories staffed with cheap migrant labour will actually pay to take such toxic goods off their shores. One of the world's biggest polluters, China, has banned the import of e-waste. Thailand is getting tens of thousands of tonnes of China-rejected, toxic-laden goods. Improperly handled -- as it currently is in Thailand -- e-waste threatens and potentially harms virtually every living thing, animal and plant. Authorities, out of incompetence, shortage of staff or other more sinister reasons, have let this toxic threat get out of hand. Police now claim they are trying to control the problem, but for every plant shut down, another two are ready to open.

This now is a threat that only the government can handle. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon has proposed an outright ban on importing e-waste. This is probably a necessary step to get the situation back under control. There is a desperate need for modern and safe recycling of electronic waste. It is first necessary to halt the obviously corrupt and out-of-control system now polluting the country.