KALASIN – As the white-hot midday sun blinds the eyes and threatens to sear uncovered skin, the pungent stench of burning plastic attacks first the nose, and then the lungs. This is where gadgets and household appliances go to hell–an electronic waste dump in Khok Sa-ad (literally, “Cleanly Hill”), a sub-district of Khongchai district in Kalasin province.
Every day, new arrivals from all across the country are brought to this rural northeastern district by a small army of private garbage collectors. What can’t be picked clean, burns.
The Pollution Control Department and the governor of Kalasin issued an executive order in October 2018 banning electronic waste sorters from bringing refuse to burn here. It also bans items containing lead to be dumped close to agricultural fields and bodies of water, in a bid to protect locals and their crops from lead poisoning.
The Public Health Act of 1992 empowers local officials to have the police arrest and press charges against anyone who creates noxious fumes through burning which causes a public nuisance to nearby communities. The penalty is a maximum prison term of one month, a fine of up to five thousand baht, or both.
But when The Isaan Record visited the site on August 21 last month , there were piles of the bulbous plastic casings of old televisions, along with a large lot of refrigerator hulks ablaze. The atmosphere of the supposedly burn-free zone of was filled with acrid smoke.
This is not what was supposed to be happening. Rangsan Phochai, the chief of Nong Tokpaen, a neighboring sub-district says, “In October of 2018 the Khok Sa-ad administration officials, local community representatives, and the Nong Tokpaen administration officials came together to ink an agreement to ban the burning of electronic waste in this area.” The situation was dire, he recalls. “We were really suffering. All the communities were.”
The chiefs of both sub-districts made a joint public statement to discourage any burning and villagers were warned that the police would arrest and charge them for environmental destruction.
“But I still see evidence of people offering burn-for-cash services on private property, even by the side of the road,” Rangsan says. “They do it at night while most people are sleeping, and everyone has to breathe in the smoke.”
When officials from the Pollution Control Department visited the site in 2018, they recorded 181 individuals involved in the sorting of waste.
Most of them purchased discarded electronic goods gathered from all over the country in wholesale quantities. They then brought their haul to the site for sorting, which nets them, per household, no less than 20,000 baht on average per month.
Thailand produces around 638,000 tons of hazardous waste annually, a 3.2 percent increase from the tonnage of 2017, according to a 2018 report by the Pollution Control Department. Household appliances and other electronics account for 414,600 tons–65 percent–while 35 percent, or 223,400 tons, are other forms of hazardous waste such as batteries or the discarded containers of toxic chemicals commonly used in households, commercial enterprises, or agriculture.
An academic report commissioned by a former government and published last year titled, Electronic Waste: A Technological Catastrophe, summarizes the situation: in 2018 permits were issued for over 200,000 tons of plastic waste from abroad, up from 140,000 tons in 2017.
Plastic smoke, more than a nuisance
For years, residents of the communities in the area have been complaining about smoke and the constant smell of burning plastic coming from the dump in Khok Sa-ad.
The house of Parichat Phusopha faces in the direction of the waste dump. In the two-kilometer distance between her house in Ban Bua Noi in Nong Tokpaen sub-district and the dump, there is nothing but fields.
The 60-year-old woman has put up with the day-and-night smell and smoke for five years now. But since the two sub-district chiefs made their announcement in 2018, the smell has been drifting over mostly at night.
“The fumes start wafting over when it’s pretty late. Sometimes it’s so bad that it wakes me up, and then I have trouble getting back to sleep because of the smell,” she says. “It’s not just the smell that’s bothering me. I get really anxious for my health when I catch that smell. I’m afraid of developing breathing problems.”
Nuch (not her real name), a 39-year-old woman from the same village said the problem has been especially severe over the past year. She declined to give her real name, fearing conflict with certain people in the community.
“It tends to start at around 11 p.m. or midnight. You get up to go to the toilet and that’s when it hits you. The smell of burning plastic is obnoxious,” she says. “As soon as you catch a whiff [of the burning plastic], you instantly get a really bad headache.”
Nuch said she has breathing problems and some allergic reactions that are worrying her. She fears that her health will worsen if the burning continues.
Somkhuan Phukhaengmog, village chief for Ban Bua Noi, said he received more than ten complaints from residents over the past six months.
“Most people in the village are elderly. They complain about a constant stinging sensation in their nostrils, and say that they can’t sleep at night anymore,” Somkhuan says. “All I can tell them right now is that despite the announcement of the sub-district chiefs, people are still burning the plastic illicitly.”
Mystery breathing problems
Although many locals have complained of experiencing breathing problems, the local health authorities have so far failed to pin down the cause.
The local hospital in Nong Tokpaen sub-district has been receiving health complaints relating to noxious fumes since 2014. Villagers from within a two-kilometer radius of the electronic waste dump have been reporting that the smoke affects them day and night and is causing them to have difficulty breathing.
The hospital began collecting information on the health issues of community members. In 2016, there were 627 locals who reported breathing problems. In 2018, when the ban went into effect, the number went down to 522.
Community members developed flu-like symptoms, intermittent fever, difficulty breathing, and allergic rashes over various parts of their bodies. They also reported a stinging sensation in their nostrils, as well as sinusitis.
But these symptoms are mostly due to the cold weather, exposure to rain, and hay fever, said hospital director Juthanee Khamhaengphol. It cannot be proven that these conditions are caused by the inhalation of fumes from the burning of plastic, she said.
There is no reliable data on air pollution levels in the area as none of the 12 air quality monitoring stations in the Northeast are located in Kalasin province. A recent study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environment International, found that e-waste burning in India was a major cause of air pollution responsible for high levels of heavy metal in the air.
Nirawan Sanphoti, Assistant Professor at the Sakon Nakhon campus of Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Public Health who has extensively studied the electronic waste dump in Kalasin, tested blood samples from locals in the area.
She found that cadmium and lead levels in local’s blood were still within acceptable parameters for now. But the test results pointed to a distinct risk of cancer and hearing loss, both among the waste sorters and the people who live in the surrounding communities.
Forget about organic farming
In addition to the pollution created by the burning of electronic waste in Khok Sa-ad, the presence of the waste dump might also be a risk to local agriculture.
Rangsan Phochai, the chief of Nong Tokpaen sub-district, says that when the burning at the waste dump was going on in the daytime, the smoke could be seen over all of the nearby farmland as well. He observed that from 2014 to 2015, the rice and mango trees in the community simply refused to flower, and none of the sows in that area were able to get pregnant.
“As a matter of fact, a lot of the farmers actually came together and agreed to switch to organic farming all at one time. But just look at this mess. There’s lead in the water, there’s toxic fumes everywhere,” he says. “The fish will be the next to go, and we won’t be able to use the underground water either.”
Rangsan says he understands that many in Khok Sa-ad depend on the income from the electronic waste dump. But he questions whether they realize the impact their way of life has on everyone in the community.
Community members of Khok Sa-ad have been accepting electronic waste for 18 years. For some of them, the work has replaced farming as their main source of income.
Ultimately, he wants the government to address this problem by making electronics manufacturers accountable for the products they produce and sell. They should be the ones responsible for processing and recycling unused or discarded products, he says.
For the past ten years, the Pollution Control Department has been trying to get a draft law, the Electronic Waste Management Act, approved by parliament. It had been accepted for consideration by the military -appointed Legislative Assembly, but a formal reading was scheduled. There is yet no indication that the new parliament will consider the bill.
If passed, the law would obligate manufacturers or the trademark owners to take back, collect, store, and ultimately process electronic products from consumers. The law applies to all electronic goods present in Thailand, imported or otherwise. Penalties for flouting these obligations would carry a term of no more than two years, a fine of up to 200,000 baht, or both.
As written, the draft law makes it illegal to freely dispose of electronics in public spaces, open and exposed areas, or to combine electronic waste with general waste. The penalty is up to six months in jail, a fine of up to 50,000 baht, or both.
The digital age is making things worse
Penchom Saitang , director of the Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand (EARTH) Foundation, is alarmed by the rapidly growing amount of electronic waste in Thailand.
Since Thailand switched from terrestrial to digital television in 2014, hundreds of thousands of tons of TV sets have been discarded.
“There has also been a surge in the smuggling of electronic waste into Thailand, particularly from China, where it is illegal to import electronic waste of any description,” says Penchom.
After discovering the widespread smuggling of electronic waste into Thailand over the past year, the EARTH Foundation and various other private sector organizations have petitioned the prime minister to crackdown on illegal imports of electronic waste. The Ministry of Industry has since halted imports of electronic waste.
“Although electronic waste imports have been banned by the [Ministry of Industry], there still remains a loophole whereby special economic zones along the border are allowed to import electronic waste under the guise of ‘components’, and that’s exactly what happens,” she says.
Since 2015, Thailand has set up ten special economic zones on the borders to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Malaysia.
The way ahead for e-waste
The electronic waste dump in Kalasin is Thailand’s largest. Asst. Prof. Nirawan believes that the local authorities should be empowered to institute strict controls and impose meaningful sanctions on those who flout the rules. Waste sorters must be formally licensed, and ought to shoulder their share of responsibility to the community by paying higher local taxes.
“Electronic waste sorting is not inherently bad. It can actually serve to reduce the amount of toxic waste in the environment,” Nirawan says. “But it has to be well managed. Otherwise it will destroy the environment and negatively impact the surrounding communities with fumes and smells.”
Nirawan hopes that the draft law will be approved so that electronic waste management in Thailand will take a turn for the better and electronics manufacturers will change their ways.
“The government, and the relevant authorities, should have a clear road map on electronic waste management. Producers and polluters should be made responsible for disposing of the products which they created in the first place,” she says. “Thailand should not be burdening its environment with any electronic waste imports at all.”