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Coming full circle

Much has been said about the problem of electronic waste, or e-waste, worldwide. In many developing countries the situation is much direr than in the one tiny corner of Indonesia that I visited for the story ‘Zapping the ‘toxic’ out of electronic waste’ and ‘Old gadgets find new lease of life on Batam’.

There are excellent articles here (from the New York Times, in 2007), and here(from the National Geographic, with an excellent quiz and interactive feature on what electronic parts are toxic.

But given that developed Singapore has one of the highest rates of mobile phone penetration in the world, and among the highest rates of electronic and electrical appliance use (and turnover), it’s high time it turned the spotlight on itself.

If Singapore wants to trade on the world stage, it also has the moral duty to ask: Where does our e-waste really go? What really happens to it?

It’s not just somebody else’s problem any longer – everything is interconnected. US chemist Jeffrey Weidenhamer bought some cheap Chinese-made dollar-store jewellery for his class to analyse and found not only high lead contents but large amounts of copper and tin alloyed with the lead – clues that it had once been part of an electronic gadget.

As Dr Weidenhamer put it in the National Geographic piece, “The U.S. right now is shipping large quantities of leaded materials to China, and China is the world’s major manufacturing centre.

“It’s not all that surprising things are coming full circle and now we’re getting contaminated products back.”

Some notes: On the paucity of information

In my search for information, Singapore’s National Environment Agency told me it does not keep statistics on the amount of e-waste generated. Why not? It did not tell me.

In comparison, the US Environmental Protection Agency keeps detailed records of the amount of electronic waste generated, and – at least hypothetically – what becomes of it.

The availability of information is not a guarantee that high-tech e-waste will be recycled safely, but it is a start. Such record-keeping would at least be a first step on the way to taking responsibility for the nation’s high-tech trash.

Some thoughts: On kneejerk Basel regulations

Let’s be realistic. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure;  to some, recycling and refurbishing electronic waste is a business, and to others, refurbished electronics are a low-cost alternative to new machines, especially in the developing world.  And in theory, at least, recycling e-waste saves having to mine precious and semi-precious metals afresh.

A blanket ban on exporting electronic waste is neither useful nor green, as e-waste still exists and something must be done with it.

So the question is: How can e-waste be recycled safely? Is there a way to certify safe recyclers that have adequate protection for their workers?