INDUSTRIALIZED nations such as South Korea are taking advantage of a 2013 administrative order from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) that allows the importation of large amounts of potentially toxic electronic waste, or e-waste, such as discarded televisions, mobile phones, and computer components, an investigation by The Manila Times found.
According to research by the United Nations, various environmental groups, and universities, e-waste is a growing problem globally, particularly for developing countries like the Philippines, which serve as export destinations for e-waste from developed economies. The e-waste is an attractive proposition for poor communities, where it is processed – mostly by hand – to extract valuable metals such as gold, palladium, silver, and copper.
The potential for earning some income comes with significant risks to human health and environmental safety, however. According to the World Health Organization, e-waste is highly toxic, containing a host of substances that can cause cancer, liver, kidney, and lung damage, birth defects, and impaired mental function, as well as impact the environment through ozone depletion. Toxic substances commonly found in e-waste include lead, mercury, arsenic, selenium, cadmium, and cobalt, as well as dangerous chemical compounds such as polybrominated flame retardants in plastic, polychlorinated biphenyls, hexavalent chromium, and various fluourcarbon compounds that can harm the atmosphere.
The most recent reliable statistics available on e-waste are from the United Nations University’s Global E-Waste Monitor report, which covers the year 2014 and puts the worldwide total of e-waste generated annually at about 41 million metric tons, and growing at about 4 percent per year. The United States is by far the biggest producer of e-waste, generating nearly 7.1 million metric tons of e-waste, or about 24 kilograms per person per year, followed by China with 6 million metric tons of e-waste annually.
The value of this vast amount of trash is potentially enormous, according to the UNU report; if fully recycled, the annual amount of global e-waste would yield 16.5 million metric tons of steel, 1.9 million tons of copper, about 220,000 metric tons of aluminum, 1,000 metric tons of silver, 300 metric tons of gold, about 100 tons of palladium, and nearly 8.6 million tons of plastic.
The UNU report estimated the potential recycled value of global e-waste at 48 billion euros annually, but pointed out that as of the end of 2013, only about half the world’s population – about four in seven people – lived in countries with laws requiring recycling of e-waste, and that only about 6.5 million metric tons, or about 16 percent of the annual total is actually recycled.
Brain damage from ‘mind toys’
Even when e-waste is recycled it is not always done so safely, as the environment and hazardous waste watchdog group EcoWaste Coalition recently revealed. The group shared results of research by IPEN (a global civil society network promoting safe chemicals policies and practices) and Arnika (an environmental organization in the Czech Republic) showed that samples of Rubik’s Cube-like toys from 16 countries, including the Philippines, contained toxic polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) called OctaBDE and/or DecaBDE.
Both OctaBDE and DecaBDE are brominated flame retardant chemicals primarily used in plastic casings of electronic products to make them more fire resistant. These chemicals are known to disrupt human hormone systems, adversely impacting the development of the nervous system and children’s intelligence.
Samples imported from China and sold by retailers in Manila were among the most toxic of those tested by the European experts.
“Four of the 10 samples of Rubik‘s Cube-like toys imported from China that the EcoWaste Coalition bought from retailers in Manila and shipped to the Czech Republic for laboratory analysis were found to contain significant levels of OctaBDE and/or DecaBDE,“ EcoWaste Coalition explained in a statement. “One of the samples from the Philippines tested with the highest concentration of OctaBDE among 47 samples from 16 countries, including European Union, Eastern European and Southeast Asian countries.“
“Puzzle toys similar to Rubik’s Cubes are supposed to promote children’s intelligence, but the presence of brominated flame retardants from recycled e-waste creates quite the opposite impact on children who play with them and the environment,“ Arnika‘s Jitka Strakova, the study‘s lead coordinator, added.
Thony Dizon, who is the coordinator of EcoWaste Coalition’s Project Protect, said, “Our discovery of banned chemicals from e-waste in common consumer products such as toys is probably just the tip of the iceberg.
Considering the inadequate chemical safety regulations in place, it is likely that these toxic substances are being recycled into a range of products that consumers are not aware of.
“For the health of our children and workers, we urge our policy makers to grant no recycling exemption for POPs (persistent organic pollutants) such OctaBDE and DecaBDE. This dirty recycling, which often takes place in low and middle income countries, is spreading poisons in recycling sites, in our homes and in our bodies,“ he added.
How much e-waste?
The “recycling exemption” that EcoWaste Coalition’s Dizon touched on raises the question of exactly how much potentially dangerous e-waste is handled in the Philippines, which has the troubling answer that no one really seems to know.
According to the UNU global e-waste report, in 2013 the Philippines generated 127,000 metric tons of e-waste per year, about 1.3 kg per person. But the report also cautions that in many countries, including the Philippines, accurate statistics are difficult to obtain due to different measuring techniques, and data from the Environment Management Bureau (EMB) seems to confirm that: According to the EMB, in calendar year 2013, the Philippines generated 269,816 metric tons of “waste with inorganic chemicals,” the broad classification under which e-waste was included at the time. In 2014, however, when the classification was changed to differentiate e-waste from other forms of waste, EMB only recorded 69.9 metric tons; in 2015, only 1,623.2 metric tons of e-waste was generated according to data supplied by the bureau.
In terms of how much e-waste is imported from other countries, the data is even more uncertain, thanks to import classifications that allow an almost unlimited amount of e-waste to enter the country.
“Presently DAO 2013-22 [DENR Administrative Order] allows the importation of recyclable materials limited to the following: scrap metals; scrap plastics; electronic assemblies and scrap; used oil and fly ash subject to certain limiting conditions and compliance to EMB requirements. As long as DAO 2013-22 is in effect, importation of recyclable materials is allowed,” the EMB said in a written response to an inquiry by The Manila Times.
According to detailed data supplied by the EMB, however, virtually nothing that can be properly described as e-waste is recorded in customs declarations as recyclable material, but rather as used equipment. The records are fairly detailed, but give no indication of what the disposition of the materials is after it arrives.
A breakdown of the EMB data for 2015 shows that South Korea is overwhelmingly the main source of imported e-waste; last year, the country shipped 215,462 used televisions or computer monitors to the Philippines, 53,060 used computers or accessories, and about 200 used refrigerators or air conditioning units. Japan, Singapore, Sweden, and Germany also contributed e-waste, most of it used photocopy machines.
To be fair to the EMB, the bureau is exerting efforts to change to liberal regulations under DAO 2013-22. EMB spokesperson Leonie Ruiz clarified, “EMB is currently finalizing a proposed DAO on the ‘Guidelines on the Environmentally Sound Management of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment.’ This has undergone several consultations.”
The draft guidelines includes additional requirements on the importation of second-hand or used electrical and electronic equipment such as signed declaration that indicates that the second-hand or used equipment has been tested and is destined for direct reuse and fully functional; information on the further user and the distributors or retailers; and copies of certificates of testing or proof of functionality on every item within the shipment.