Science Talk

Singapore's mountain of e-waste

With 60,000 tonnes of e-waste produced a year, how much of it is recycled and reused?

In the 10 minutes you take to read this article, roughly 1,141kg of electrical and electronic items would have been thrown away by people and companies across Singapore.

That is the weight of around 7,610 mobile phones.

In a year, this figure balloons to around 60,000 tonnes (60 million kg) of e-waste, going by figures from the National Environment Agency (NEA).

What is worse, this figure could be the tip of the iceberg.

A study by global think-tank United Nations University estimates that about 109,000 tonnes of e-waste - 19.5kg a person - was generated here in 2014, making Singapore the second-largest generator of e-waste in the region, second only to Hong Kong (21.7kg). This puts the Republic ahead of Japan (17.3kg), South Korea (15.9kg) and Taiwan (18.6kg).

Acknowledging Singapore's growing mountain of e-waste, the Government is mulling over implementing regulations to ensure that discarded items, ranging from refrigerators and washing machines to televisions and mobile phones, are recycled and reused.

But why put e-waste under the spotlight?

HEALTH, ENVIRONMENT HAZARDS

All e-waste contains small amounts of hazardous materials, ranging from heavy metals such as lead found in TVs and mercury in batteries, to ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons found in refrigerators.

Many people simply throw these items down the chute, or leave them at rubbish bins and bin centres, so they are unlikely to come into direct contact with these harmful substances.

But such items often end up in the hands of scrap traders and rag-and-bone men, who lack the skills to recycle them safely and may unknowingly discharge chemical compounds which are harmful to both their health and the environment.

Long-term exposure to these compounds can affect the nervous system, kidneys, bones, hormonal balance and reproductive system. The chemicals are also not biodegradable and can persist in the environment for long periods of time.

There is currently no official data on how much of the e-waste discarded here gets recycled, but a consumer survey of 1,600 people by the NEA paints a grim picture. It found that just 6 per cent of household e-waste, amounting to 1,800 tonnes, is sent for recycling.

Recycler TES-AMM, one of six main e-waste recycling companies here, said that only about 5 per cent of the 60,000 tonnes of e-waste generated here goes through it.

Various other recyclers do not have the expertise to fully recycle a product, leading to valuable materials in e-waste going up in smoke when incinerated.

E-waste contains various metals, including copper, steel, aluminium and even gold, as well as plastic and glass, which can be recovered and used to manufacture new products. In fact, researchers who analysed 14 common e-products, including mobile phones, TVs and tablets, found that materials worth €2.15 billion (S$3.5 billion) could be recovered from e-waste generated in Europe.

The whole of Europe might generate 205 times more e-waste then Singapore, but millions of dollars from materials which could be extracted here each year is still a lot of money that can be earned from trash.

CHALLENGING LANDSCAPE

Standing in the way of a proper e-waste recycling infrastructure is the strong informal sector of scrap traders and rag-and-bone men here, and the lack of a proper e-waste collection system, said experts.

"The informal sector is unskilled and unorganised. (The people in it) are willing to take the hammer, break it down and eventually extract a few components or materials from here and there," said Professor Seeram Ramakrishna, chair of the Circular Economy Task Force at the National University of Singapore.

"We need to move from there to a more organised way, or else it will not be sustainable."

Prof Seeram noted that this leads to another issue, which is the lack of e-waste to make the recycling industry economically viable.

Indeed, noted Mr Venkatesha Murthy, managing director of e-waste consultancy Vans Chemistry, recycling firms "literally have to pay" to recycle large home appliances such as washing machines and refrigerators.

Due to the lack of economies of scale, the cost of recycling the items, including transport and labour costs, cannot be offset by the money earned from selling the components and materials extracted.

The problem: There is no national collection system for e-waste. Most people get deliverymen to cart large items away when they make a new purchase. The discarded items end up at bin centres.

Smaller items like laptops and mobile phones can be deposited at some 400 collection points set up by telco StarHub in places including shopping malls, schools and community clubs.

Still, just 93 tonnes of e-waste were collected at these collection points last year.

WILL LEGISLATION HELP?

One form of legislation that the Singapore Government is considering is the Extended Producer Responsibility approach undertaken in places like Sweden.

In Sweden, about 15kg of e-waste is collected per person and overall, about 52 per cent of e-waste is recycled. E-waste producers, including brand owners and manufacturers, are required by law to ensure that their products are collected and recycled.

Large retailers provide collection points at their stores and one-for-one take-back services upon the purchase of a product. They also have to pay an "environmental fee" to recycling companies to fund their services.

As a result, Swedish e-waste recycler El-Kretsen is able to collect 140,000 tonnes of e-waste a year, two-thirds of the total amount of e-waste the country generated in 2016.

Half of its earnings are from selling the materials recovered from e-waste, while the other half is made up of environmental fees.

"Political instruments can work, but also the market. The more demand for recycled material, the better the prices and hence possibilities for us to develop our processes," said Mr Marten Sundin, marketing head at El-Kretsen.

Laws will also allow the flow of e-waste to be better tracked, reducing illegal dumping and improper handling of e-waste by the informal sector.

But Vans Chemistry's Mr Venkatesha, who has more than 20 years of experience in the e-waste industry, said there is no need for a whole new collection network.

He believes the authorities can tap the existing collection networks used by public waste collectors (PWCs) in Singapore to collect general waste.

"They don't need to reinvent the engine, instead e-waste recyclers and the PWCs need to work closely, sharing the cost and responsibility," he said.

The PWCs, he pointed out, can be incorporated into the e-waste collection system such that they also stand to profit. Rag-and-bone men can also have a role, working for the recycling firms. So instead of taking the items apart and selling the components to scrap dealers, they can sell them to proper recycling firms.

"You cannot take away their bread and butter by completing cutting them out of the equation," Mr Venkatesha said.

CONSUMERS NEED TO PLAY A PART

But for Singapore to truly boost its e-waste recycling rates, the buy-in from consumers is needed.

This will require education.

NEA's consumer survey found that six in 10 Singapore residents do not know, or are unsure of, how to recycle their e-waste.

Consumers also need to vote with their wallets, said Mr Arthur Huang, founder of Miniwiz, a Taiwan-based upcycling company that has created 1,200 new materials from trash including e-waste. These materials can be used to create clothes and even sunglasses,as well as in buildings.

But without consumer demand, manufacturers will not be motivated to use recycled materials.

"In the end, it is the market that decides what product can be made. If you don't buy, those products (made from recycled materials) will never be made," he said.