A recent United Nations Study found that 44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste were generated, globally in 2016 and only about 20 per cent – or 8.9 million metric tonnes – of this amount was recycled. Experts foresee a further 17 per cent increase — to 52.2 million metric tonnes of e-waste by 2021.
The National Environment Agency (NEA) of Singapore has released the results of a study looking into the e-waste disposal patterns of consumers in the city. The study, conducted from April 2016 to October 2017, was aimed at identifying the challenges in Singapore’s management of e-waste, and developing a comprehensive system to address these challenges.
The study found that around 11 kg of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste), equal in weight to 73 mobile phones, is disposed of per person in Singapore, amounting to more than 60,000 tonnes of e-waste generated in Singapore a year. Household appliances, such as washing machines (32%), Refrigerators (27%) and TV (22%) accounted for the bulk of e-waste. Computers and mobile phones constituted 2% and 1% respectively.
Consumers typically trade in or sell (24% of disposal) e-waste of high value such as mobile phones, while 26% is thrown away with general waste. Bulky e-waste (e.g. washing machines and refrigerators) is mostly carted away by the deliverymen (35%) when new appliances are delivered, but is sometimes discarded improperly, such as being left at common areas). Only 6% is recycled and 9% is donated. Moreover, the study showed that 60 per cent of Singapore residents do not know or are unsure of how to recycle their e-waste.
e-waste that is discarded or carted away by deliverymen sometimes ends up with informal collectors such as scrap traders. They refurbish reusable electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) for sale, dismantle the rest and trade the parts extracted with recyclers. But many of these collectors do not have the capability to maximise resource recovery from e-waste, and as a result, only components of significant value are recycled.
In Singapore, e-waste that is not recycled is incinerated, which results in the loss of resources as well as in carbon emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change.
In addition, the processing of e-waste by these collectors can result in workplace hazards and poor environmental practices. These include the venting of harmful refrigerants from refrigerators and air-conditioners to the environment and discarding of potentially hazardous unwanted components with general waste. Heavy metals in the e-waste incinerated also contaminate the incineration ash which is landfilled at Semakau Landfill.
Existing regulations and programmes
Upstream controls came into effect in Singapore in June 2017 in the form of a framework on the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (SG-RoHS), that limits the amount of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). The framework, adapted from the European Union (EU) RoHS Directive, restricts six hazardous substances in six controlled EE (mobile phones, mobile computers, refrigerators, air conditioners, panel TVs and washing machines).
NEA has been working to raise public awareness of the need to recycle e-waste and to encourage participation in voluntary programmes where proper recycling and treatment processes are adopted.
In 2015, NEA formed the National Voluntary Partnership for E-Waste Recycling to provide support for businesses and communities interested in promoting e-waste recycling to the public.
The partnership consolidates the efforts of the industry and community, and also provides funding support for those under the partnership to expand on their public recycling programmes. To date, NEA has formed 17 partnerships with industry stakeholders.
In June 2017, SingTel and SingPost jointly launched ReCYCLE, an initiative that allows consumers to drop off their unwanted electronics at SingTel shops and SingPost branches, or mail them in for free. According to the press release, the most extensive programme is StarHub’s RENEW, in which more than 400 e-waste bins have been placed across Singapore. However, such programmes only result in the collection of portable info-communication technology (ICT) equipment, which is a small fraction of the total.
NEA notes that there are limits to voluntary approaches. A regulated system is needed to ensure that consumers are provided with convenient means to recycle their e-waste, and that the e-waste collected is channelled to proper recycling facilities where safety and environmental standards are adhered to.
Looking at established e-waste management systems in Germany, New York, Japan, Sweden and South Korea, NEA found Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to be a common feature in these approaches. Under EPR, key stakeholders in the e-waste management system are assigned responsibilities. For example, producers might be required to ensure that their products are properly recycled upon reaching their end of life, by fulfilling e-waste collection targets and channelling the e-waste collected to formal recyclers. Retailed could be required to provide convenient collection options for consumers.
The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) and NEA are currently studying the best practices adopted by other countries, and are assessing their suitability for Singapore through stakeholder consultations with the industry. MEWR and NEA will also be seeking public views on e-waste via a consultation session in February 2018.