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Vietnam​ searches for solutions to deal with domestic e-waste

   
Gadgets (Image 1 of 12)

A salesperson at an electronics store uses her smart phone during a lull in the store. There are almost enough cell phones in Vietnam for everyone between 15 and 64 years old to have two. Vietnam is expected to be the fastest growing electronics market in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2015.

   
Cell Phones (Image 2 of 12)

An e-waste recycler uses tweezers to extract valuable metals such as copper, gold, platinum and palladium from a cell phone. These materials often are extracted using highly toxic chemical processes. Cell phones are the most frequently discarded electronics item in Vietnam, according to a study by Vietnam’s Institute for Environmental Science and Technology.

   
The Informal Recyclers (Image 3 of 12)

At 71, Cao Thanh Thuy has been recycling electronics for more than 20 years and says business has never been better. Eighty percent of Vietnamese prefer to sell their old electronics to recyclers such as Thuy, according to Vietnam’s Institute for Environmental Science and Technology. Thuy’s specialty is televisions, for which she pays up to US$10 depending on the size. Cathode ray tubes in televisions are usually smashed by hand in the informal recycling process, releasing a dust that can be harmful to human health.

   
Household E-waste (Image 4 of 12)

Millions of tons of fans, washing machines and microwaves — also considered e-waste according to the United Nations Environment Programme — are discarded globally each year. Thousands of fan motors are dismantled and sorted each day for recycling by informal recyclers in the Nhat Tao electronics market in Ho Chi Minh City.

   
Heavy Metals (Image 5 of 12)

Television motherboards are sold as spare parts or stripped for their valuable metals and then discarded as trash or put through a toxic process to extract small amounts of gold. In 2014, an estimated 1.6 million televisions were discarded or sold to recyclers in Vietnam, up from just 200,000 in 2002. Electronics can leach arsenic, lead, mercury and other metallic toxicants and threaten local water supplies.

   
Exponential Growth (Image 6 of 12)

The population of Ho Chi Minh City has doubled in the past 10 years and it, along with the population of surrounding areas, is expected to continue to grow substantially by 2025, making improvements to the electronic waste processing systems even more urgent.

   
A Slow Start (Image 7 of 12)

A bin of e-waste is collected by the Vietnam Recycles campaign, a pilot program launched by Hewlett-Packard Asia Pacific and Apple South Asia that collects and disposes of e-waste as a free service. The amount of waste collected by Vietnam Recycles since its launch in January 2015 was not enough to begin regularly processing the waste in bulk due to the prohibitive costs of formal recycling.

   
Recycle today for a sustainable tomorrow. (Image 8 of 12)

The slogan on this sign — “Recycle today for a sustainable tomorrow” — targets young people and encourages them to “reduce, reuse, recycle” — especially electronic waste. Forty-two percent of Vietnam’s population is under age 24.

   
Hazardous Waste (Image 9 of 12)

A truck of hazardous waste arrives at the processing facility of Ngoc Tan Kien Company, which is processing domestic e-waste for Intel and Panasonic, among others. Electronics collected through the Vietnam Recycles campaign are mostly low-value items, such as fans and lamps. High-value items such as computers and iPhones fetch between US$20 and US$200 in the informal recycling market.

   
Safety Procedures (Image 10 of 12)

An employee of Ngoc Tan Kien Company shows a photo demonstrating the safety gear worn by employees who work for the Vietnam Recycles project. According to campaign officials, e-waste is collected and processed according to U.S. standards, making it safer for both the workers and the environment, but also much more expensive than the informal system.

   
Le Van Khoa (Image 11 of 12)

Le Van Khoa, from Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology, was part of the team of researchers that recently conducted a study on e-waste collection in Ho Chi Minh City. The study concluded that providing financial rewards for recycling (such as a deposit system) would benefit formal electronic waste recycling.

   
Ve Chai (Image 12 of 12)

In Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam, freelance garbage collectors called “ve chai” travel the city buying valuable recyclables (including e-waste) from individual households and selling the waste to private recycling companies. The system is “informal but highly efficient,” says Khoa

 

Much of the world’s electronic waste ends up in Vietnam — not only cellphones, computers, printers and TVs, but also items many people may not think of when they consider e-waste, such as washing machines, microwaves and fans. This waste is often burned or dumped in landfills where toxicants such as arsenic, mercury, lead and cadmium are released into the air or leach into the water. Perhaps most concerning, domestic e-waste is growing by about 25 percent each year in Vietnam, with up to 113,000 metric tons (124,500 tons) discarded this year.

Earlier this year, Vietnam tried to address this problem by requiring electronics producers to collect and process the e-waste generated by their products. Hewlett-Packard Asia Pacific and Apple South Asia launched a pilot program called “Vietnam Recycles” (Việt Nam Tái Chế) with new collections centers where used products could be safely recycled. But most Vietnamese say they prefer to sell their old electronics to scrap collectors who repair and resell the electronics or dismantle them for salvageable materials, a process that can be hazardous to workers’ health.

“Everyone sells their old electronics to scrap collectors,” says Duy Phan, a resident of Ho Chi Minh City. “The five or 10 dollars you can make still goes a long way in Vietnam.”

But some researchers who have studied the issue say there is a relatively simple solution. Consumers could pay a deposit when they buy electronics — a phone, for example — and get the deposit back when they turn the phone in to a formal recycling center.

“A deposit-refund system would be the best way to make the formal recycling sector competitive,” says Le Van Khoa, a professor of the environment at Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology and co-author of a study on e-waste collection in Ho Chi Minh City. Khoa is hopeful that recent increased awareness of the major threat electronic waste poses to the environment will make it a top priority for policy makers and environmental law enforcement in Vietnam. View Ensia homepage

This article was produced in association with Round Earth Media, which is supporting the next generation of global correspondents while producing underreported stories for top-tier media around the world. An Dien contributed reporting.

Add Your Comments
  • Jency Nov. 18th, 2015
    Most of the domestic wastes are used as useful ways, rather than this industrial one not used as useful ways.
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