Sunday, May 19, 2024

A market in Vietnam recycles e-waste that would otherwise end up in landfill


In a shop at the Nhat Thao market in Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Bao Loc sits eating lunch between the engines he has fixed and now wants to sell. Photo: Jae C. Hong / AP / NTB

Of NTB | 06.05.2024 05:34:45

Science and technology: Dam Chan Nguyen saves dead and dying computers.

When he first started working at the Nhat Tao market, the largest unofficial recycling market in Ho Chi Minh, about 20 years ago, he usually salvaged computers with large screens and heavy processors. Now he mostly works with laptops and the occasional MacBook.

But the main task of his work has not changed: Nothing should go to waste. What can be fixed, will be fixed. What can be salvaged is reused elsewhere. What is left is sold as scrap.

– We use everything we can, he says.

The workers, many of them migrants from other parts of Vietnam, repair or salvage items such as laptops, cell phones with wear and tear, camera lenses, TV remote controls, or even entire air conditioners.

Other stores sell brand new electronics alongside the old, recycled goods.

The market is symbolic in a world that produces more e-waste than ever – 62 million tonnes in 2022. The figure is estimated to increase to 82 million tonnes by 2030, according to a report from the UN agency UNITAR. Asian countries account for approximately half of the waste.

– We are currently creating e-waste at a rate we have not seen before, says Garam Bel, head of UNITAR.

The fact that the waste is simply thrown away also means that recoverable resources are lost – the loss is estimated at NOK 676 billion in 2022, according to the UN report.

And the rubbish piles grow five times faster than the recycling piles. Less than a quarter of e-waste was properly collected and recycled by 2022. Parts of the rest end up in the hands of unofficial waste workers, such as Nguyen, in different parts of the world.

This is particularly the case in countries in Southeast Asia, according to the UN, where e-waste is not collected or recycled.

It is demanding to constantly keep up with trends and new technology, so he is constantly learning via friends and the internet.

His working days are 11 hours, and he earns a little over NOK 5,000 a month – about two and a half times the minimum wage in Vietnam’s largest and most expensive city. It is demanding work, and he has no health or pension scheme.

Nguyen says his health is fine, but he worries about the potentially dangerous chemicals in the electronics he disassembles without protective gear. The rising heat in Ho Chi Minh also bothers him, especially in the summer when the shop feels like an oven.

– Sitting here can feel deadly. I just have to hold on. I have to work to earn a living, he says.

– We get used goods from anywhere – anyone who sells, I buy from, says Nguyen.

Renovation companies should try to work with people like Nguyen, says Garam Bel from UNITAR. It can ensure the companies access to more waste without destroying the livelihood of the workers who work for themselves.

It can also have other advantages, such as that those who work for themselves have reduced health risks, and that they do not pick the most valuable parts from the waste and then dump the rest.

For example, processes such as melting chips to recover copper can expose people to the highly toxic chemical dioxin, which is linked to birth defects and cancer with high exposure. Some types of electronics also contain mercury.

It is possible to extract several key minerals from electronics, but only 1 percent of the demand for 17 of these minerals is met through recycling, according to the UN report.

– There are no figures on how much of these minerals are recovered on the site, says Bel.

In India’s capital New Delhi, a company has built a co-working space where recyclers like Nguyen can dismantle e-waste, making it safer and more cost-effective.

It also makes it easier for the companies to buy the salvaged materials on a scale they would otherwise not have had the opportunity to do.

Vietnam is one of the few countries in the region that has a legal framework for the management of e-waste. The aim is for 70 per cent of e-waste to be collected and processed by 2025, and the authorities have tried to integrate those who recycle for themselves into the formal systems.

Nguyen says a partnership would be beneficial for workers like him.

– If we could formalize our work, it would be perfect, he says.

The shop he works in is one of many in the market which spreads over several streets filled with haggling customers. Most of the repair shops are single rooms crammed with discarded electronic devices or e-waste, with tables placed outside.

How the waste is handled is important. It fills landfills at an alarming rate and dangerous chemicals such as lead leak into the environment and can be harmful to human health.

44-year-old Nguyen is one of three employees in the store. His long tenure in the business has struck a good chord with regular customers, including some other repair shops that rely on him to do difficult jobs.

Unlike waste workers with formal employment, obtaining enough waste to make recycling cost-effective is not a problem for Nguyen and others like him. They have an established network for acquiring discarded electronics.

The refurbishment companies usually have permits to dismantle and recycle electronics using machines. They also take several precautions for the health risks of e-waste, which may contain toxins.

Cooperation between waste disposal companies and recyclers who work for themselves has been tried in some places.

(© NTB)


© Jaun News English