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Wonder What Happens to Old iPhones? They're Dumped in Thailand

Electronic waste, like discarded phones, is causing a growing headache for Thailand
Electronic waste, like discarded phones, is causing a growing headache for Thailand | © n1c0_AOF / Flickr
Thailand might be known for its blissful powdery white-sand beach scenes, but an illegal build-up of toxic electronic waste imported from abroad – including discarded mobile phones – is causing the popular destination growing headaches.

The country is facing a crisis in the handling of illegally imported electronic waste, according to local authorities. They are warning that disreputable importers have been unlawfully mislabelling and smuggling the waste across Thai borders in an effort to irresponsibly and inexpensively dump it, to the detriment of Thailand’s environment and population.

Paving paradise to dump electronics

For overseas visitors who typically relate Thailand with paradise-like scenes of waves lapping beaches and sipping on ice-cold coconuts and heady cocktails – or who have more recently heard tales of a country pulling together in the rescue of a youth football team trapped in a flooded cave system – the idea of the backpacker haven as an e-waste dumping ground will come as a surprise. But reports indicate that as much as 50,000 tons of the rubbish was shipped into Thailand from abroad between January and June 2018.

Reports have emerged of mounds of electronic waste in Thailand, like this pile of laptop casings in China © baselactionnetwork / Flickr

Sky News reports that it filmed ‘huge towers of broken phones, computers and televisions’ dumped at a site on the outskirts of Bangkok, one that it says was raided by police officers cracking down on the waste smuggling operation.

According to the news outlet, the pace of electronic waste being imported to Thailand illegally has quickened since China acted to ban the practice at the start of the year – reaching 52,200 tons between January and June, compared to 64,400 tons throughout the entire previous year. That move by China was reported on at the time in the UK and elsewhere, when concern was raised that it may cause problems for western countries all too accustomed to sending their plastic and electronic waste overseas for processing.

Potential for environmental disaster

Thai deputy national police commissioner Wirachai Songmetta was quoted by Sky News as claiming that waste had been found in Thailand originating from ‘every country, all over the world’. As much of 76% of the annual global electronic waste production toll of 44.7 million tons is believed to be illicitly dumped, wreaking havoc on ecosystems and creating problems for human populations thanks to the potential for chemicals such as mercury and lead to leak from electronic products and cause pollution catastrophes.

The spike is believed to have been caused by China's ban on electronic waste processing at plants like these © baselactionnetwork / Flickr

Clamping down

Thai newspaper, the Bangkok Post reported, as the situation unfolded domestically in June, that five scrap electronics importers had seen their operating licences revoked by the country’s Industrial Works Department for allegedly using illegal factories to ‘recycle’ their waste.

The move came as part of a pledge by the department and politicians to clamp down on the illegal practices, with department chief Mongkol Pruekwatana quoted as resolving to inspect another 148 such facilities to check on their legal compliance.