Electronic Junk Is Piling Up in Asia at an Alarming Rate

The amount of e-waste in Asia has jumped by nearly two-thirds in five years, raising hazards for the environment and for the people dismantling discarded gadgets.

Rising incomes and high demand for electronics created an almost two-thirds jump in e-waste in East and Southeast Asia over five years, reports a new study.

The research was conducted from 2010 to 2015 by the UN's academic and research arm, United Nations University. The study looked at 12 countries: Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

Between them, a whopping 13 million tons of electronics - basically anything with a battery or a cord - were discarded, researchers said. China alone accounted for nearly half of that total.

Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines created the smallest amount of e-waste, about three pounds per person. On the other end of the scale, consumers in Hong Kong generated nearly 50 pounds of e-waste in 2015, with Singapore, Taiwan and China close behind.

The study's authors wrote that the increased flow of tossed electronics makes it difficult for existing waste collection systems to cope and leads to unsafe recycling and disposal.

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Hazardous recycling methods and illegal dumping are prevalent in most of the countries studied, the report found. When the waste is collected, those doing the job are frequently engaged in informal "backyard recycling." Open burning of electronics over a stove separates copper from plastic in cables, for example, leading to toxic fumes.

Backyard recyclers also use wet chemical processes - called acid baths - to remove expensive components, such as gold, silver, palladium and copper, from circuit boards.

"In the absence of protective materials such as gloves, glasses, masks, etc., inhalation of and exposure to hazardous chemicals and substances directly affect workers' health," co-author Shunichi Honda said. "Associations have been reported between exposure from improper treatment of e-waste and altered thyroid function, reduced lung function, negative birth outcomes, reduced childhood growth, negative mental health outcomes, impaired cognitive development, cytotoxicity and genotoxicity."

Co-author Ruediger Kuehr of UN University told Seeker that reducing the problem would require a multi-faceted approach.

"Collection is a major challenge in the U.S., Europe and Japan," Kuehr said, yet "collection rates can be rather high in many developing countries due to low labor costs – another example how the challenges are differing. But a certain harmonization of approaches is certainly desirable, also to ease recycling for transnational players and reduce the respective administrative challenges."

The UNU offers guidance for addressing the problem globally, Kuehr said, by publishing policies and laws from around the world, providing guidance for recycling as well as recommendations for reusing electronics.

If you're looking to recycle, donate or sell back old equipment, check out this guide to responsibly handling your own e-junk.

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