The Price of Recycling Old Laptops: Toxic Fumes in Thailand’s Lungs

  • 2019-12-10
  • The New York Times

The e-waste industry is booming in Southeast Asia, frightening residents worried for their health. Despite a ban on imports, Thailand is a center of the business.

The factory, New Sky Metal, is part of a thriving e-waste industry across Southeast Asia, born of China’s decision to stop accepting the world’s electronic refuse, which was poisoning its land and people. Thailand in particular has become a center of the industry even as activists push back and its government wrestles to balance competing interests of public safety with the profits to be made from the lucrative trade.

Each year, 50 million tons of electronic waste are produced globally, according to the United Nations, as consumers grow accustomed to throwing away last year’s model and acquiring the next new thing.

While Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have rejected individual shipments of waste from Western countries, Thailand was the first to push back more systematically against the electronic refuse deluging its ports.

In June of last year, the Thai Ministry of Industry announced with great fanfare the ban on foreign e-waste. The police made a series of high-profile raids on at least 10 factories, including New Sky Metal.

If some types of electronic waste aren’t incinerated at a high enough temperature, dioxins, which can cause cancer and developmental problems, infiltrate the food supply. Without proper safeguarding, toxic heavy metals seep into the soil and groundwater.

In Thailand, millions of undocumented workers from poorer countries like Myanmar and Cambodia are vulnerable to abuse, environmental watchdogs say, adding that the need for such laborers will only intensify.