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Politics

E-waste piles up in Thailand's landfills

Police seize tons of discarded electronics from overseas

BANGKOK -- Thailand is facing a mounting problem of waste from electronic and electrical equipment, known as WEEE or e-waste, with massive amounts being dumped in landfill across the country because of its weak laws on waste mangement.

On June 8, Thai police seized more than 200,000 tons of e-waste imported by a company located in Chachoengsao, one of three provinces affected. Police also found several smuggled containers of e-waste at Laem Chabang, Thailand's largest commercial port.

"The e-waste was imported in containers and falsely declared as second-hand electrical equipment, but it fact, it is all e-waste to be [dumped] here in Thailand. Some valuable parts such as metals will be re-sold, while other hazardous components are dumped improperly in landfills," said Surapol Chamart, an inspector general at the industry ministry.

Raids have uncovered more smuggled e-waste in nearby areas, and raised concerns that millions of tons of hazardous waste have been smuggled into Thailand in recent years, going under the radar of the authorities.

Thailand is estimated to produce about 3.3 million tons of hazardous waste from almost 70,000 industrial factories across the country. That excludes 600,000 tons of e-waste from users of hi-tech electrical equipment, particularly personal computers and mobile phones.

Mismanagement and loopholes in the law have also made Thailand a dumping ground for e-waste from other countries, with some profiting from selling on valuable elements of electronic products coming from places including Singapore, Europe, China and Sri Lanka.

The lack of stringent and proper laws on e-waste management raises doubts about how Thailand will deal with the vast amounts of electronic waste products that are expected to come in with the opening up of the Eastern Economic Corridor. The EEC is a special economic zone that spans more than 13,000 sq km along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, which is designed to accommodate hi-tech investment and move the country toward the so-called "Thailand 4.0" digital era.

Currently, Thailand has a law governing toxic waste, but it only covers hazardous waste from industrial factories and is overseen by the industry ministry's department of industrial works. It does not address e-waste.

The country is drafting a new law covering broader areas of e-waste management, seeking to put more responsibility on producers of electrical equipment. However, the legislation seems to have stalled.

Sumetha Wichienpet, director of the waste and hazardous substance management bureau, said drafting of the new law began in 2012 and it was finally approved by the cabinet in 2015.

However, the draft was held up by the office of the council of state, which has spent years re-working its content.

Previously, the law was designed around an idea of "extended producer responsibility", putting the responsibility of collecting end-of-life equipment and sending it as e-waste to local authorized recycling companies on electronic equipment producers, according to Sujitra Vassanadumrongdee, a researcher at the center of excellence for environmental and hazardous waste management at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, who was involved in the process of drafting the law.

However, sources familiar with the issue say lawmakers have been lobbied in recent years about changing the wording of the law to help reduce the responsibility of electrical equipment producers, who are wary of taking on the extra costs of waste management.

"That's why it [has been such a long] vetting process and this important environmental law has gone nowhere. It could also destroy the reputation of Thailand regarding waste management at a time when the country is moving toward a more digital era when a great deal of hi-tech equipment will be used," said a government source who asked not to be named.

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