Much of the world’s electronic waste ends up in Vietnam — not only cell phones, 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.
* 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.