With 60,000 tonnes of electronic waste - as heavy as 220 Airbus A380 planes - churned out every year, Singapore was recently named the second biggest e-waste producer in South-east Asia and the Far East by a United Nations University report.
Singapore generated 19.95kg of e-waste per capita in 2015, behind Hong Kong's 21.7kg and ahead of Taiwan's 19.13kg.
Yet only a small fraction of our discarded electronics and electrical equipment (EEE) gets recycled.
The problem could lie with consumers and small and medium enterprises (SME), recycling firms told The New Paper.
Vans Chemistry's managing director, Mr Venkatesha Murthy, said: "I would say 90 per cent of the corporates here do it the right way.
The worrying thing is that we don't know the journey of the e-waste from SMEs and households.
"The computer or the TV that is left near the rubbish chute may be picked up by someone for reuse or repair. We don't know what happens after the most useful parts are extracted."
Often, they end up in the incineration plants, he said.
The lack of e-waste recycling is a pressing issue because it is both a waste of resources and a source of pollution when the incinerated bits are dumped in landfills.
Cadmium in rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries, for instance, can accumulate in the body upon exposure and cause lung and kidney damage in the long term.
In Singapore, e-waste disposal is not legislated.
The National Environment Agency is looking at a national e-waste management system, with the study expected to be completed in the first quarter of this year.
Meanwhile, the public is encouraged to recycle e-waste through initiatives in the community.
One of the more extensive programmes is Renew (REcycling the Nation's Electronic Waste), which StarHub runs with partners DHL and recycling firm TES-AMM.
With specialised bins islandwide, the programme saw its e-waste recycling tonnage jump from 2,695kg in 2012 to nearly 53,000kg from January to November last year.
But awareness remains a key challenge, said StarHub.
Its spokesman told TNP: "To improve e-waste recycling rates, first, we need to understand what e-waste is, the impact and ramifications of its improper disposal as well as how and what we can do about it."
Legislation could help, said National University of Singapore's (NUS) Associate Professor Tong Yen Wah.
The co-director of NUS' Energy and Environmental Sustainability Solutions for Megacities programme cited Japan as an example.
With laws enacted in the 1990s, Japan boasts a 50 per cent recycling rate.
A regulatory system is needed to keep the e-waste problem from mounting, said Mr Venkatesha.
Then, the financial incentives can come in, he added.
Agreeing, e-waste recycler Virogreen's marketing manager, Mr Mohamed Sharul Annuar, said cost is a huge obstacle for SMEs, some of which are struggling to survive.
When such a system is in place and a market is created, recyclers will be incentivised to collect e-waste, Mr Venkatesha added.
StarHub believes in encouragement rather than enforcement.
"Being responsible is as simple as correctly disposing or recycling our e-waste, whether it be at an individual or at a corporate level," its spokesman said.
How does electronic waste get recycled?
The life cycle of electronics and electrical equipment (EEE) does not end when they stop working.
If recycled properly, the precious metals found in electronic waste can go towards new EEE products.
Discarded consumer electronics such as mobile phones, for instance, contain small amounts of precious and rare earth metals such as gold and silver.
Scrapped cars and home appliances such as fridges and air conditioners also contain these rare metals, along with base metals of iron and zinc.
In Singapore, there are several e-waste recycling initiatives for consumers.
StarHub, for instance, partners recycling company Tes-Amm and logistics company DHL Delivery to place 328 specialised recycling bins in 277 locations under its Renew programme.
Singtel has recycling bins placed at three of its shops for consumers to discard their used gadgets.
Under the Project Homecoming initiative led by Canon and Epson, those with ink and toner cartridges can also drop them off at selected National Library Board locations.
Once collected, the e-waste is sorted, labelled and dismantled according to their types - wires, LCD screens, hard disks and more.
Measures, such as demagnetising hard disks, are taken to ensure data security.
The e-waste is then exported to countries equipped to separate the metals through chemical processes.
Once extracted, the metals are used in the manufacture of new products.
Why recycle e-waste?
When electronic waste is not disposed of properly, both the environment and public health suffer.
This is because e-waste is very heterogeneous, National University of Singapore's Associate Professor Tong Yen Wah explained.
Apart from being made up of many types of components and materials, discarded electronics are also assembled in many ways, from simple devices like batteries to complex ones like smartphones.
"All of these make e-waste very difficult to handle and recycle, and if their disposal is not done properly, these materials can get out and be circulated in the environment," said the co-director of NUS' Energy and Environmental Sustainability Solutions for Megacities programme.
For instance, toxins from e-waste in landfills can seep into the groundwater that flows into rivers, causing water pollution.
This article was first published on Jan 23, 2017.
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