[Marxism] The Price of Recycling Old Laptops: Toxic Fumes in Thailand’s Lungs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 8 08:58:25 MST 2019

NY Times, Dec. 8, 2019
The Price of Recycling Old Laptops: Toxic Fumes in Thailand’s Lungs
By Hannah Beech and Ryn Jirenuwat

KOH KHANUN, Thailand — Crouched on the ground in a dimly lit factory, 
the women picked through the discarded innards of the modern world: 
batteries, circuit boards and bundles of wires.

They broke down the scrap — known as e-waste — with hammers and raw 
hands. Men, some with faces wrapped in rags to repel the fumes, shoveled 
the refuse into a clanking machine that salvages usable metal.

As they toiled, smoke spewed over nearby villages and farms. Residents 
have no idea what is in the smoke: plastic, metal, who knows? All they 
know is that it stinks and they feel sick.

The factory, New Sky Metal, is part of a thriving e-waste industry 
across Southeast Asia, born of China’s decision to stop accepting the 
world’s electronic refuse, which was poisoning its land and people. 
Thailand in particular has become a center of the industry even as 
activists push back and its government wrestles to balance competing 
interests of public safety with the profits to be made from the 
lucrative trade.

Last year, Thailand banned the import of foreign e-waste. Yet new 
factories are opening across the country, and tons of e-waste are being 
processed, environmental monitors and industry experts say.

“E-waste has to go somewhere,” said Jim Puckett, the executive director 
of the Basel Action Network, which campaigns against trash dumping in 
poor countries, “and the Chinese are simply moving their entire 
operations to Southeast Asia.”

“The only way to make money is to get huge volume with cheap, illegal 
labor and pollute the hell out of the environment,” he added.

Each year, 50 million tons of electronic waste are produced globally, 
according to the United Nations, as consumers grow accustomed to 
throwing away last year’s model and acquiring the next new thing.

The notion of recycling these gadgets sounds virtuous: an infinite loop 
of technological utility.

But it is dirty and dangerous work to extract the tiny quantities of 
precious metals — like gold, silver and copper — from castoff phones, 
computers and televisions.

For years, China took in much of the world’s electronic refuse. Then in 
2018, Beijing closed its borders to foreign e-waste. Thailand and other 
countries in Southeast Asia — with their lax enforcement of 
environmental laws, easily exploited labor force and cozy nexus between 
business and government — saw an opportunity.

“Every circuit and every cable is very lucrative, especially if there is 
no concern for the environment or for workers,” said Penchom Saetang, 
the head of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand, an environmental 

While Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia, Malaysia and the 
Philippines have rejected individual shipments of waste from Western 
countries, Thailand was the first to push back more systematically 
against the electronic refuse deluging its ports.

In June of last year, the Thai Ministry of Industry announced with great 
fanfare the ban on foreign e-waste. The police made a series of 
high-profile raids on at least 10 factories, including New Sky Metal.

“New Sky is closed now, totally closed,” Yutthana Poolpipat, the head of 
the Laem Chabang Port customs bureau, said in September. “There is no 
electronic waste coming into Thailand, zero.”

But a recent visit to the hamlet of Koh Khanun showed that the factory 
was still up and running, as are many others, a reflection of the weak 
regulatory system and corruption that has tainted the country.

Despite the headlines about the police raid, New Sky Metal was fined a 
maximum of only $650 for each of its licensing infractions.

Since the e-waste ban, 28 new recycling factories, most dealing with 
electronic refuse, began operations in one province east of Bangkok, 
Chachoengsao, where Koh Khanun is located, according to provincial 
statistics. This year, 14 businesses in that province were granted 
licenses to process electronic waste.

Most of the new factories are in central Thailand between Bangkok and 
Laem Chabang, the nation’s biggest port, but more provinces are allowing 
the businesses.

Thai officials say that some incinerators may still be burning because 
factories are working through old stockpiles. Plants may also be 
processing domestic rather than foreign refuse, they say.

But neither explanation is likely, according to industry experts. Hoards 
of imported waste wouldn’t last this long. And the amount of electronic 
trash that Thailand produces is far outpaced by the number of new factories.

Foreign e-waste might be smuggled into the country mislabeled as scrap, 
said Banjong Sukreeta, the deputy director general of the Department of 
Industrial Works.

“Ask customs about falsified declarations,” he said. “Rules are not 
enough if the people who implement them are not up to it.”

But Mr. Yutthana, of the customs bureau, said every box that landed at 
his port was inspected thoroughly.

“We are 100 percent careful,” he said.

In October of this year, the Thai legislature unveiled loosened labor 
and environmental regulations for all factories, a move that has 
benefited the e-waste industry. Under one provision, small companies are 
no longer subject to pollution monitoring.

At the same time, a draft bill that would ensure tighter control over 
Thailand’s electronic waste industry has languished in legislative 

“Thailand is welcoming environmental degradation with its own laws,” 
said Somnuck Jongmeewasin, a lecturer in environmental management at 
Silpakorn University International College. “There are so many loopholes 
and ways to escape punishment.”

The consequences are frightening.

If some types of electronic waste aren’t incinerated at a high enough 
temperature, dioxins, which can cause cancer and developmental problems, 
infiltrate the food supply. Without proper safeguarding, toxic heavy 
metals seep into the soil and groundwater.

Locals who fought against the deluge of trash have been attacked.

“Why don’t you in the West recycle your own waste?” said Phayao 
Jaroonwong, a farmer east of Bangkok, who said her crops had withered 
after an electronic waste factory moved in next door.

“Thailand can’t take it anymore,” she said. “We shouldn’t be the world’s 
dumping ground.”

Phra Chayaphat Kuntaweera, a Buddhist abbot, has watched as several 
waste-processing factories opened around his temple. Two more are under 

First, the monks began to cough, he said. Then they vomited. When the 
incinerators burned, their headaches raged.

“Monks are people, too,” he said. “We get sick from the fumes just like 
anyone else.”

Earlier this year, the abbot put a sign in front of his temple in Khao 
Hin Sorn, east of Bangkok.

“Cheap temple for sale,” the banner read, blaming “fumes from burning 
factories” for the desperate measure.

At King Aibo Electronics Scrap Treatment Center, one of the factories 
near the temple, schedules written in Chinese note the dates that 
shipments will be arriving. The three workers in the office on a recent 
visit were all Chinese.

“We know that Chinese people set up factories in Thailand,” said Mr. 
Banjong of the industrial works department. But he said that since the 
ban on electronic waste was instituted, “we are more strict.”

King Aibo is one of the factories that began operations this year.

Other factories never shut down, despite repeated infractions.

One, Set Metal, was ordered to shut in April 2018, officials said. It 
never had a license to import electronic waste, and locals complained 
about the stench.

But on a recent visit, a Thai-Chinese interpreter, speaking through a 
gate, said the company was open for business, even if some operations 
had moved to a nearby village. Behind him, containers overflowed with 
electronic waste. About 100 Burmese workers live on the factory’s grounds.

Even in cases in which wrongdoing is acknowledged, follow-through is 
weak. This year, officials admitted that 2,900 tons of electronic waste 
seized in last year’s raids had gone missing.

The police had left the stockpile in the care of the Chinese manager, 
who later skipped the country.

In September, Sumate Rianpongnam, an activist, campaigned against the 
e-waste industry’s polluting his hometown, Kabinburi. That night, men on 
motorcycles shot bullets into the air near his home and raced off.

Shortly afterward, men in a pickup truck tossed small grenades, known as 
Ping-Pong bombs, at his friend’s house. The grenades exploded, but the 
friend was not injured.

Others weren’t as fortunate.

In 2013, a village chief spoke out about the illegal dumping of toxic 
waste. He was shot four times in broad daylight. The man charged with 
ordering the killing, an official in the local Department of Industrial 
Works, was acquitted in September.

Mr. Sumate and his friend were campaigning against a landfill that 
illegally mixes electronic waste and household rubbish. On a visit to 
private land adjacent to the landfill, muscled men packed in a pickup 
truck tried to block the path out.

“I’ve chosen to do this work,” Mr. Sumate said. “I am not scared of death.”

In the shadow of the corroded smokestack at New Sky Metal, Metta Maihala 
surveyed her eucalyptus plantation. The lake that waters the farm has 
clouded over, and the smell is nauseating.

Suddenly, through the rows of trees, a pair of Burmese workers emerged. 
The man showed burns on his arms from his work at New Sky Metal but said 
he had no idea what liquid had caused his wounds.

The woman, Ei Thazin, said she received $10 a day for sorting metal. “I 
didn’t know this was dangerous work,” she said.

In Thailand, millions of undocumented workers from poorer countries like 
Myanmar and Cambodia are vulnerable to abuse, environmental watchdogs 
say, adding that the need for such laborers will only intensify.

Of the 14 factories granted licenses to process e-waste this year in 
Chachoengsao Province, six are in Koh Khanun. Five are linked to the man 
whose name is associated with New Sky Metal, or with his wife.

“We can’t choose the air we breathe,” said Ms. Metta, the eucalyptus 
farmer. “Now there will be even more factories. We are all going to die 
a slow death.”

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