E-waste: Emerging markets must lead by example

E-waste: Emerging markets must lead by example

In the final instalment of our recent series focusing on e-waste in emerging markets, we reached out to a major Asian operator to learn more about how they plan to achieve a major sustainability pledge - Thailand’s True Corp, which has announced that it aims to achieve zero e-waste to landfill by 2030.

According to a 2021 publication by the country’s Pollution Control Department, Thailand saw its e-waste output reach 435,187 tons that year, of which only 22% (147,293.96 tons) could be properly managed. Of this total, mobile phone e-waste accounted for 25,050 tons, with just only 17 tons (1%) properly recycled. There are several factors behind this, most notably a lack of knowledge and awareness in the public sector resulting in insufficient household e-waste separation from general waste. However, there is also inadequate regulation relating to e-waste management, separation, extraction, collection, and transport.

Clare Hobby of TCO Development notes that this lack of awareness extends to how products are used and even designed, arguing that on one level e-waste is a design flaw. “80% of the lifetime emissions of a computer are locked in the supply chain, before the product reaches the end user”, she notes. “We all have this idea that we need a new product every few years, and we try to choose the most energy efficient product next time. If you buy a product that’s 20% more energy efficient, you’d still have to use it for anywhere between 17 and 44 years to compensate for the emissions it’s already generated.”

Realising the urgency of the issue, True has pledged to reduce its environmental impact as well as conducting business under the United Nations Sustainable Development Framework (SDGs) to ensure responsible consumption and production. True has stated its intent to switch to a circular economy to efficiently manage limited resources, and has set a sustainability goal on e-waste management with the target of sending zero e-waste to landfill by 2030. Last year, the company achieved 100% of e-waste management for its operations and aims to expand the goal to cover consumers’ e-waste management.

True’s Head of Sustainability, Dr. Piyaporn Pasakanon, noted that the operator is collaborating with expertise alliances on recycling e-waste to the Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI)’s R2 standard. True also adheres to the Total Environment Solution (TES) NIST 800-88R1 standard in disposing data sanitization, ensuring that e-waste from consumers is reused or recycled by appropriate methods, with zero waste going to landfill. It has also allied with All Now Logistics to drive the project with higher efficiency and minimal impact on the environment.

“E-waste that has been disposed in landfill or burnt without going through appropriate recycling process will have an impact on lack of resources or precious minerals in the future”, said Dr. Pasakanon. “It will also cause pollution to the environment and the population. In Thailand, we have been facing the problem of PM 2.5 [particulate matter 2.5 – the point at which particles in the air are less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which is damaging to human health] in the beginning of the year, which is caused by burning waste.”

The problem of e-waste affecting both environmental and human health is not limited to Thailand; there are enormous piles of e-waste ending up in Africa and China, and while metals are being recovered from them it’s not in an organised or protected working environment. It also still leaves a huge amount of plastic which is completely unusable; Hobby notes that TCO Development’s research has confirmed that these plastics frequently contain a lot of untested chemical substances.

“The plastic is often burnt as a last resort, [and] it’s a huge problem because the chemical industry is notoriously opaque”, says Hobby. “There are thousands of new chemicals for plastics coming onto the market every day, and only about 1% of them are ever tested for any human health or environmental factors.”

Realising the importance of reducing landfill and burnt waste, True has sought to raise public awareness of the issue to drive further action. However, in addition to managing existing e-waste, it is just as important to reduce the amount of e-waste generated. Based on research relating to mobile phone usage, Thai consumers typically switch their mobile phone device within 18 months despite the longevity of the device being up to 3 years. True has implemented programmes allowing its customers to exchange older devices with newer ones in order to extend the device’s life cycle based on its actual duration, which helps to reduce the issue of e-waste. Thus far, the operator’s customers have traded in 22,947 older devices.

Prior to their merger, both True and dtac saw e-waste as a key environmental issue and a major business responsibility, and post-merger the firm has pursued this strategy further via its Better Together campaign. This initiative has seen the company launch public e-waste bins in a bid to increase awareness while also alleviating the issue, and True has formed alliances with other environmentally-minded business partners to keep the issue in the public mind, including via reward schemes for consumers who engage with e-waste reduction schemes.

Dr. Pasakanon said that True aims to inspire domestic and international operators – along with other private sectors that focus on electronic devices - to adopt measures that will reduce the amount of e-waste sent to landfill. She proposed four key initiatives that could be implemented by firms globally to achieve this:

  • Take-Back Programs, which collect old or obsolete electronic devices from consumers by encouraging them to return devices so that they can be properly recycled.
  • Refurbishment and Resale, which extends the usable life of devices, allowing them to be resold or donated to reduce overall e-waste generation.
  • Awareness and Education, which helps customers to understand the importance of responsible disposal and the availability of e-waste collection points, promoting recycling.
  • Design for Environment, which involves working closely with manufacturers to encourage the production of more environmentally friendly devices, advocating for the use of recyclable materials, reduced energy consumption, and extended product lifespan.

Sustainable development is a challenge for every organization, and cross-sector cooperation is required to raise societal awareness over our collective responsibility for the environment. Dr. Pasakanon concluded by outlining the five key factors for success in this regard, underlining the need for:

1.            Leadership with clear strategy and commitment

2.            Engagement with stakeholders through the value chain

3.            Empower people to decide and contribute to their goals

4.            A growth mindset to look for new ways of work

5.            Innovative, data-driven technology to drive project success

By putting these recommendations into action, True aims to demonstrate to other operators in emerging markets that sustainability need not be seen as a luxurious option or a compliance issue, but a means to solve a problem that deeply affects them.

The issue of e-waste is vast and ongoing, but changes are finally afoot in terms of consumer awareness – and the message is getting through both at corporate and government level. While the onus is global – and arguably, a larger share should fall on the more developed markets that have driven the e-waste cycle – emerging markets are pushing back, whether through economic means such as adopting a more circular economy, or direct action on e-waste such as True’s zero-landfill campaign. Plenty more must be done to impact the problem, but the movement is gaining momentum.

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