Since China imposed a ban on its import at the end of last year, electronic waste (e-waste), mainly from the United States and Europe, has had to be diverted to alternative destinations. Before then, it was estimated that roughly 70% of e-waste ended up in China. A series of local news reports on illegal imports of e-waste since the beginning of this year revealed that Thailand may have become one of the main destinations.
E-waste refers to discarded electrical or electronic devices such as freezers, washing machines, televisions and batteries. Such waste contains toxic chemicals classified as “hazardous waste”.
The international movement of hazardous waste is governed by the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal to which both China and Thailand are signatories. The convention aims to prevent the flow of e-waste from developing countries to less developed ones by prohibiting the cross-border transport of such hazardous waste unless consent is obtained from both the exporting and importing countries.
So why did a large volume of electronic waste end up on Thailand’s shores? The answer is that most of the imports are illegal, as we have proper rules and regulations governing the import of hazardous waste.
Under the 1992 Factory Act and the 1992 Hazardous Substances Act, the Department of Industrial Work (DIW) is responsible for issuing permits to import waste. Importers have to obtain three licences – to recycle waste, to import waste and to dispose of waste via a recycling operation. These licences enable the authority to track the amount of hazardous waste imported as well as its disposal process as licensees are required to report the volume of waste imported for recycling and the name of the company permitted to transport and dispose of the waste after recycling.
Currently, there are seven companies that hold a licence to import electronic waste for recycling. The scandal began when one of the companies operating in Chachoengsao province was found to have illegally imported prohibited electric and electronic waste such as printed circuit boards (PCB), batteries and television sets. And after recycling, the company incinerated the remaining parts in uncertified incinerators or dumped them in landfills designated for non-hazardous waste.
Subsequently, four other importers were found to have illegally imported and disposed of e-waste in a similar manner.
The DIW urgently suspended the factory licence of the five importers for one year and temporarily froze the approval of all applications to import e-waste. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon revealed that the government may invoke Section 44 of the interim charter to issue a ban on foreign electronic and plastic waste in the long-term, if necessary. Although the measures taken thus far serve well to suspend the illegal inflow of foreign e-waste, the root of the problem, which is lax supervision of the treatment and disposal of hazardous waste, has not yet been tackled. How much hazardous waste is mishandled in Thailand?
According to the Pollution Control Department’s Thailand State of Pollution 2016 report, the Thai industrial sector produced 2.8 million tonnes of hazardous waste. Of that amount, only 35% was properly disposed of in accordance with rules and regulation. That means each year, roughly 1.8 million tonnes of toxic waste is either dumped in open landfills or burnt in uncertified incinerators or worse, in open air, producing the worst types of pollution.
Besides lax supervision on part of the DIW, another factor that may contribute to the widespread non-compliance is the size of the penalty. The cost of hazardous waste disposal can be as high as 150,000 baht per tonne, while the maximum penalty for failure to dispose of the waste, according to the Factory Act and the Hazardous Substances Act, is merely 200,000 baht and a jail term of up to two years. Under the law, the size of the penalty is subject to the discretion of the concerned authority, paving the way for under-thetable payments.
It is thus no surprise that the Thai hazardous waste disposal industry is small and unattractive to investors with advanced technology. In fact, there is currently only one company that holds a licence to incinerate hazardous waste with a rotary kiln and secondary combustion chamber technology.
As an increasing number of countries are banning the import of hazardous waste, the risk of Thailand becoming a global dumping ground for e-waste is undeniably high. No one knows how widespread the problem is and how damaging the illegal disposal has been to the environment and people.
I believe the recent scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. The problem is both widespread and deep-rooted. It is urgent for Thailand to overhaul the management of hazardous waste. These are some of the measures that the government may consider to apply.
First, since the DIW possesses all the key information and data about the management of hazardous waste, it should be compelled to disclose them. These include volumes of hazardous waste produced by local factories and imported from overseas, names of waste-generating factories that failed to submit a hazardous waste disposal manifest and legal actions taken against non-observance of the regulations. With such information, the public will be properly informed about the state of the management of hazardous waste and proper policies and actions can be crafted.
Second, it may be necessary to appoint a third-party to inspect compliance with the DIW’s hazardous waste management regulations. This is because the DIW is under the Ministry of Industry whose main mandate is to promote the industrial sector rather than to protect the environment. For example, in the US the Environmental Protection Agency is the main authority that oversees the management of industrial waste. A possible third party will be the Pollution Control Department, which is under the purview of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The Department is responsible for monitoring all types of pollution.
Third, harsher penalties, especially for repeat offences, should be considered so that the cost of non-compliance will be commensurate with the gains. It is also important for the DIW to disclose names of the perpetrators and sanctions doled out to each of them to ensure consistency and transparency in law enforcement.
As Thailand tries to escape the middleincome trap by promoting all sorts of industries; be they the S-curve industries or the “digital 4.0” industries, we cannot simply turn a blind eye to the environmental issues. One must not forget that manufacturing industries are footloose – they can move offshore whenever business conditions are no longer favourable. By contrast, the environmental damage that they leave in the host country is permanent. Therefore, the government needs to show that it assigns gravity to environmental problems. The e-waste saga will be a test case.
Caratlux Liumpetch is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.