Electronic waste (e-waste) is the fastest growing waste stream globally, projected to reach 74.7 million metric tons in 2030, a rise of approximately 30%. It encompasses standard electronic equipment no longer in use, such as old phones, TVs, laptops, PCs, microwaves, and other devices. Currently, the volume of waste produced stands at 57.4 million metric tons, and it is likely to climb to 59.4 million metric tons in 2022.

China leads the e-waste generation globally with 10.13 million metric tons produced. The United States comes second with 6.92 million metric tons, India with 3.23 million, Japan with 2.57 million and Brazil rounding off the top five with 2.14 million metric tons. Russia, Indonesia, Germany, the United Kingdom (UK), and France are each below 1.7 million metric tons of electronic waste generated.

Thus far, countries have not handled electronic waste disposal appropriately, and many developed nations tend to send their e-waste to developing nations. The UK leads in this trend of exporting electronic waste by sending it to Tanzania, Nigeria, and Pakistan, amongst others, pumping 209,222 metric tons of garbage into their environment. While old or thrown-out devices have functional reusable components or valuable parts made from platinum or gold, the waste can be a health and environmental hazard.  

In addition, the documented and recycled electronic waste worldwide is just 20%, meaning that most devices are ending up in landfills and exposing regular people to harmful components and carcinogenic chemicals while also polluting the environment. Asia generates the most waste, almost twice the amount produced in the Americas, and only recycles 11.7%. As such, Southeast Asia tech startups should be wary of the impact in the region and start taking their responsibilities more seriously.

Southeast Asia’s e-waste risk

The lifespan of electronic devices is shorter than it used to be decades ago. On average, their life-cycles are 2.3 years shorter than their designed and intended spans. With new technology popping up all the time, most devices need replacing faster than ever before. Asia’s increasing numbers of digital consumers and the high demand for technological advancement means the electronic waste generated will continue rising at an alarming rate.

For Southeast Asia, this means dealing with environmental, societal, and economic challenges. According to a report by the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and the United Nations E-Waste Coalition, the current electronic system needs to be replaced with a circular economy, which reuses extracted resources, minimises environmental degradation and creates sustainable jobs.

Electronic waste’s challenges include air pollution, soil and groundwater contamination, and health problems due to exposure to chemicals like mercury and lead. From a socio-economic perspective, these hazardous materials may cause Southeast Asians to spend all their money paying for healthcare, and pregnant women and children may experience fetal and neurodevelopmental issues.

Furthermore, e-waste management requires labour and equipment, thereby making it an expensive venture. Low-income areas may resort to using underpaid workers or child labour to extract valuable pieces from the devices, exposing them to exploitation and other struggles.

Solving the electronic waste puzzle

According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of electronic waste. There is a low collection rate in countries with informal and formal electronic waste management systems in place. As a result, it is engulfing the world with a problem that is bound to worsen with the current digital consumption globally.

Even though, as the report says, 71% of the world’s population have policies, regulations, or legislation regarding electronic waste, there are inadequate efforts in enforcing or implementing these rules. This lax approach means the entire globe is operating casually, ignoring the threat to their way of life.

Informal recycling methods expose workers to chemicals, release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and enable the release of toxins. These procedures harm the community and go against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the United Nations. Most of the goals relate to wellbeing and saving the planet.

For Southeast Asia tech startups, solving the e-waste problem not only presents a business opportunity but also protects health, society, and the environment. First, the entire region should boost the low recycling rates, using safe disposal techniques to remove the trashed devices. Second, they should use sustainable raw materials, which extend the lifespan of electronics and keep them out of the trash cans a bit longer.

Another option is to refurbish used or damaged appliances and put them up for resale. People might be willing to consider renting or leasing electronics to save money and use the devices until the next-generation ones are released.

Finally, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should push countries to enact adequate legislation to give people clear guidelines for what to do when dealing with electronic.