Authorities in Thailand have been scrambling to contain a waste scandal after discovering a vast amount of plastic and electronic waste has been imported this year – often illegally – by factories involved in recycling.
Thais have been horrified to learn in recent weeks that hundreds of thousands of tons of electronic waste has been shipped into the country since China’s decision to stop taking waste from wealthy countries at the end of last year.
The news emerged in late May after police raided a waste management plant in Chachoengsao, east of Bangkok, after claims that hazardous waste smuggled from abroad was being burnt at the facility.
Untrained and unregistered migrant workers paid a meager 9,000 baht a month (US$272) were found handling toxic items and burning electronic circuit boards, exposing both themselves and the surrounding environment to possible heavy-metal contamination.
Foreigners smuggling trash
The Chinese owner of the plant was accused of importing potentially dangerous waste under false Customs declarations, The Nation reported. Foreigners were smuggling trash and declaring it as second-hand goods, police said.
The revelation led to other illegal waste sites being raided. Officials admitted they often had “no idea what kind of waste is toxic” or how to deal with it. More than 210,000 metric tons of waste was found to have been imported, from 35 countries according to police, in the first five months of this year.
Fears suddenly swirled that Thailand – or “Trashland” as cynics labeled it – could become the new dumping ground for the world’s electronic waste. That spurred concern about the long-term toxic hazards from waste accumulated at these dumps.
On June 1, four containers full of plastic waste were found in eastern Bangkok, which amplified fears given Thailand’s woeful record in dealing with the plastic waste that it alone generates. Turtles and other marine animals are regularly found choking on plastic that has washed into the sea.
By the third week of June, nearly 20 illegal waste sites had been raided and there was speculation that legal changes brought in by the military government had opened the door to the “surge in foreign trash”, as such facilities could be set up anywhere regardless of an area’s zoning.
A representative from Greenpeace said: “Electronic waste (e-waste) can be used as fuel in waste incinerators, as well as unrecyclable plastic. This order has eased restrictions for incinerators and waste factories.”
Concerned about the scale of the problem, and reports perhaps that national politicians had been involved in the illegal trade in waste, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said there would no longer be imports of foreign waste. Licenses of five importers were suspended after they were found to have hired illegal factories to recycle trash.
Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda said the government had decided to set up a multi-agency panel to work out how to regulate garbage from abroad. “It’s not just e-waste but also other [dangerous] types of garbage,” he said. “If the trash does not benefit the country and causes negative impact and burdens, we won’t allow it to be imported.”
If that didn’t work, they would use Section 44, he said – the all-powerful law brought in by the junta used to override all other legal barriers to promptly deal with problems.
Meanwhile, about 400 containers thought to contain electronic waste, plastic and discarded metal are now sitting abandoned at ports in Bangkok and Laem Chabang. Customs officials have warned that if they are not claimed within 15 days, they will dispose of them or send them back to where they came from – countries such as the US, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and China.
All of this drama has spurred a warning from a US environmental group that the experience Thailand has gone through could happen to many countries in South and Southeast Asia.
‘Basel Ban Amendment’ close to becoming law
The Basel Action Network said on Monday that developing countries could be “hit by a tidal wave of electronic and plastic waste” if they don’t move to ban the import of such waste by ratifying an international agreement called the Basel Ban Amendment – a change to the Basel Convention agreed by 194 countries – to make it illegal to export hazardous waste such as electronic waste from developed countries like the European Union to poorer states.
The network says most e-waste from North America and Europe is exported to Asia – to Hong Kong, increasingly to Thailand and Pakistan. “Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka have ratified the agreement, but Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam have not,” it said.
“It is especially ironic that while the Thai government is rightly very concerned about the dumping on their territory, [as] they have not made a move as yet to ratify the Ban Amendment. The Ban Amendment is but three ratifications short of going into the force of international law.”