E-waste smuggling ring in Thailand signals failure of Basel Convention

A Singapore-based recycling firm’s brush with the Thai authorities is evidence of a well-intentioned international regulation to tackle dangerous waste that is not working.

Electronic waste being processed in an informal setting in Thailand. Image: Basel Action Network
Electronic waste being processed in an informal setting in Thailand. Image: Basel Action Network

International regulations designed to limit the environmental impact of electronic waste could be making the problem worse, experts in Southeast Asia say.

The region’s e-waste sector has been under the spotlight since news broke in May last year of an e-waste smuggling ring in Thailand.

One firm implicated in the incident was Singapore-headquartered recycler Virogreen, which was found by police investigators last May to have imported 96 tonnes of e-waste labelled as secondhand electronic appliances from Singapore, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka into Thailand.

But the cargo did not enter the used electronics market. It was channelled through a network of waste management plants, which salvaged the precious metals and disposed of the remnants as e-waste.

Other companies accused of illegally importing e-waste into Thailand were GPL Metal Group International and OGI Co, while the waste disposal companies included Yongtang Thai, New Sky Metal Co, San Lian Thai Co, and Subcharoen Recycle Co.

Virogreen, which has operations in the United States, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and India, was charged with falsely declaring imported goods, tax avoidance, and smuggling hazardous waste into Thailand, according to Thai media reports

The company, which has lost three major contracts with high-profile customers as a result of the news, has objected to the allegations, saying the press has misrepresented its operations in Thailand.

Thailand announced that it would stop importing e-waste in August last year following a series of police raids on recycling facilities that revealed environmentally damaging disposal methods.

Waste electronics contain highly toxic substances including lead, mercury and cadmium, which pollute the air, water and soil when burned or dipped in acid to salvage metals such as gold, silver and copper.

People are celebrating Thailand banning waste imports. But it’s not really good news. That waste will simply go somewhere else.

Dr Martin Blake, strategic advisor, Blue Planet Environmental Solutions

E-waste exports to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries have soared since China—historically the world’s dumping ground for waste of all kinds—banned waste imports in January 2018.

As a result of police investigations, Virogreen’s import licence was suspended for a year by Thailand’s Department of Industrial Works (DIW).

Playing by the rules?

Virogreen, which is a strategic partner for a recently announced US$15 million research initiative to find less toxic ways to recycle e-waste backed by Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA), told Eco-Business that the company had been importing the material for recycling in line with the Basel Convention.

NEA added that it has not been notified by DIW of any illegal e-waste shipments by Virogreen.

The Basel Convention is a Europe-originated treaty designed in the 1980s to curb the movement of hazardous waste, which includes e-waste, from developed to developing countries.

A loophole in the Basel Convention enables some e-waste exporters in developed countries to continue to export electrical trash to developing countries—if the material can be reused. 

Shipments of e-waste from Singapore were “carried out in accordance [with] the regulations and control [of the] Basel Export Permit approved by the relevant authority,” a Virogreen spokesperson said.

The company added that its import licence had been suspended because, following a move of premises, some e-waste was passed to a waste management company “for storage” without permission from Thailand’s DIW. Virogreen was also charged with storing batteries on its premises. Batteries are particularly difficult to dispose of because of their toxicity.

The NEA told Eco-Business that it had issued Virogreen with a Basel Export Permit for e-waste export in February 2018, and had received written consent from the Thai authorities, in accordance with the Basel Convention.

An NEA spokesperson said: “We understand that the company [Virogreen] used to export e-waste to their facility in Thailand for recycling. However, Virogreen Singapore informed NEA that it had stopped this arrangement in response to Thailand’s import ban of scrap electronics that was announced on 16 August 2018. Virogreen also terminated its Basel Export Permit in December 2018.”

Flawed framework

Waste management experts say that the improper disposal of e-waste is the unintended consequence of a regulation designed to limit the environmental impact of e-waste.

“The problem [of e-waste pollution] has to a degree been exacerbated by the regulatory framework [of the Basel Convention],” commented Dr Martin Blake, a strategic advisor for Singapore-based waste management company Blue Planet.

When China blocked waste imports, the Basel framework left a hole in the market “with no plan B” for where to send plastic, electronic and other forms of potentially harmful waste. So waste has been shipped around the world “with no home to go to,” Blake said.

“This waste is finding its way onto the black market, and it is being processed by people who are inappropriately skilled or protected, and treated in a way that makes the most profit and puts them at an unfair advantage [over professional recyclers],” said Blake.

“People are celebrating countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand banning imports of plastic or e-waste. But it’s not really good news. That waste will simply go somewhere else. And the likelihood is it won’t be treated in the right way.”

Finding a fix

Dealing with the world’s growing e-waste burden—about 50 million tonnes of e-waste, the world’s fastest growing waste steam, is generated a year—requires investment in large-scale recycling facilities, Blake said.

This hasn’t happened because countries struggle to make the economics of e-waste recycling work—there is not enough domestic e-waste to make recycling plants profitable, he explained.

One solution to the economics problem could be regional recycling centres that serve numerous countries, for instance Singapore could serve as an e-waste recycling hub for Southeast Asia, Blake said.

However, this would require a tweak to the Basel Convention, which limits the transboundary movement of e-waste.

The Basel Convention was “a knee jerk reaction to a problem to make it less bad, not to fix the system,” Blake said.

Large e-waste recycling centres won’t be profitable unless they process a critical mass of raw material. “The solution needs to be bigger than any single country can manage on its own,” he said.

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