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Asia’s E-Waste Problem Is Getting Out of Hand

The average Asian adult disposes of far less gadgetry than a Westerner, but many of the continent’s nations are ill-equipped to process the waste.
January 17, 2017

Asia has an e-waste problem. But it's not the amount of dead gadgets that's the issue, really—it's the ability to process them at the end of their lives.

New research from the United Nations University shows that in 2014 Asia generated 16 million metric tons of e-waste. That's about 3.7 kilograms per person, which equates to a couple of laptops or around 30 iPhones, if you’re having a particularly decadent clear-out.

The biggest contributor to that figure, by a long way, is China. The surfeit of discarded electronics there grew by 6.7 million metric tons in 2015, an uptick of 107 percent since 2005.

The reason for the increase? “As Asian countries rapidly industrialise, and their citizens enjoy higher income and living standards, the consumption and disposal of Electrical and Electronic Equipment will continue to increase,” the report explains.

But if those figures sounds gloomy, now may be a good moment to look closer to home. In the United States, the average person discards 12.2 kilograms of electronics every year. In Europe, they toss aside 15.6 kilograms. The latter figure is approximately 121 iPhones, if you’re keeping count.

The difference, of course, is in the way the waste is processed. In an ideal world, valuable metals would be harvested, toxic compounds carefully disposed of, and anything else recycled. But for that to happen, a defunct gadget needs to be collected and dismantled, its components sorted and recycled, and problem chemicals dealt with.

That’s hard to fully achieve for every gadget, even in the West. But many facilities do exist across the U.S. which will give it a good shot. Some devices can be refurbished and resold, while others are broken down and ransacked for their innards. Plastic is often simply incinerated, though.

According to the United Nations University, some countries—such as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea—already process old electronics as responsibly as the likes of the U.K. and U.S. But many, including China, still struggle. In many streets, it’s not uncommon for people to hammer away at computers or set fire to smartphone components to extricate valuable metals that lurk within. Problem is, that's damaging to the environment and people's health.

The new report suggests that raising awareness, creating suitable facilities, and imposing stricter governance on the processing of e-waste could change that. You can add to that list gadgets that are designed to be inherently easier to recycle—but that’s something that even the biggest technology companies have only recently started to embrace.

In truth, these changes all need to happen, and swiftly. As the lifestyles of Asian middle classes continue to improve apace, we can expect the average annual discard of electronics to ramp up—so the ability to recycle needs to improve dramatically.

(Read more: “Where Cell Phones Go to Die,” “Apple’s Recycling Robot May Help Build iPhones, Too”)

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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