Thai neighbors of e-waste factories complain about sickening fumes

Wilawan Watcharasakwej
Thai neighbors of e-waste factories complain about sickening fumes Thai law-enforcement officers and journalists stand behind a pile of mobile batteries during a raid of a suburban Bangkok factory accused of importing and processing electronic waste, June 21, 2018.
Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

UPDATED at 7:15 a.m. ET on 2024-01-03

Ae felt dizzy each time she smelled fumes from a smokestack at a recycling plant for electronic waste near her home in Chachoengsao province, east of Bangkok.

The 53-year-old villager said she had witnessed the growth of what she described as Chinese-owned facilities, including one adjacent to her backyard in Phanom Sarakham district.

Chinese nationals started out by renting a warehouse from a Thai landlord, she recalled. After the lease agreement expired, they bought the land to build their own plant, said Ae, who withheld her full identity because of safety concerns and fear of a lawsuit.  

“There were very few e-waste factories at the beginning,” she told BenarNews. “Now, the industry has expanded across the village and to other provinces.

“Chinese investors constructed factories on their own lands to rent out. They are entrepreneurs who regularly fly back and forth from China to Thailand, leasing out the facilities to fellow Chinese investors who have imported the waste for disposal here,” Ae said based on her conversations with migrant workers and observations of the neighboring plant.

Faced with tons of electronic waste being dumped in Thailand annually, authorities here are cracking down on unlicensed recyclers after the plants’ neighbors and environmentalists complained about foul odors.

Thailand’s e-waste industry has proliferated during the past six years. In the first 10 months of 2023, Thailand imported 56,154 metric tons of e-waste. That’s compared to all of 2022, when the country brought in a total of 58,877 metric tons.

The top exporters are the United States, Britain, Australia and Japan, according to Customs Department data provided by the Thai-based Ecological Alert and Recovery (EARTH).

Lately, more than 2,600 factories have been licensed to process e-waste across the country while most facilities are in the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), a special economic zone designed to entice foreign investment in Chachoengsao, Chon Buri and Rayong provinces, EARTH said.

“Most of the factories are located in Chachoengsao’s Phanom Sarakham district. And it’s very likely that this industry will be cutting through other provinces,” Penchom Saetang, EARTH’s director, told BenarNews.

While licenses were required to construct the factories, EARTH said many do not have the proper permits to process e-waste, which consists of discarded electronics such as old laptops and cellphones. The group said it did not have information on the number operating without authorization.

China restrictions

Foreign countries began dumping their electronic waste here after China banned imports of e-waste in 2017. Thailand brought in just 2,824 metric tons that year, according to EARTH.

Three years later, Thai authorities banned the import of more than 400 types of e-waste following protests over environmental- and health-threatening substances such as cadmium and dioxin, according to the government. Still, the nation struggles to eradicate the hazardous situation.

“Since China restricted the e-waste, we have seen a significant growth of Chinese money pouring into the recycling industry here, which is allowed to happen by weak regulations,” Penchom said.

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Ae pointed out another e-waste recycling plant operating at a cassava plantation 1 km (0.6 miles) from her village. She said the fumes from the melting process trickled across the village, leading people to complain about breathing issues, dizziness and headaches.

“Villagers protested in front of the plant and a Chinese owner came out to apologize and talk us down. He promised to improve his machines and build a taller smokestack,” Ae said.

“The smells still come. People living next to the factory could smell the scent downwind,” she said.

Ae said she has purchased a new house, but her parents don’t want to leave their home despite potential health concerns.

Elsewhere, Tambon Koh Khanun, a village cluster in Phanom Sarakham district, is home to more than 30 licensed hazardous waste facilities.

In February 2022, EARTH Thailand and Czech Republic-based Arnika Association collected samples of soil and duck eggs near an e-waste recycling facility in Phanom Sarakham. The groups claimed laboratory results showed high levels of dioxins in the samples.

“We found that there is a single company granted 15 licenses and another individual granted five licenses to operate recycling facilities. Is it necessary for a company and a person to have that many licenses,” EARTH’s Dawan Chantarahassadi said after viewing government files.

“This is a business model of land abuse for the recycling industry. They have land, factory buildings and licenses to lease out or sell to other Chinese investors,” Dawan said. 

Staff from EARTH Thailand and Czech Republic-based Arnika Association collect soil samples near an e-waste recycling facility in Phanom Sarakham, Chachoengsao province, Feb. 4, 2022. [Handout photo/Arnika Association]

EARTH members report that infractions are hard to track because loopholes allow importation of e-waste, noting importers could file false declarations.

Making this case, Dawan presented a video to BenarNews showing about 20 cargo trucks.

“They identified the imported items as mixed metals, but they were actually the electronic waste imported from abroad. They arrived in big lots without any controls,” Dawan said. “Thailand is too open and it becomes the new base for e-waste that moved from China.”

Local government officials who oversee the recycling industry in Thailand could not be reached for comment.

Police crackdown

Meanwhile, Thai authorities in September cracked down on three factories in two provinces where more than 1,000 metric tons of e-waste were stored. 

“I’m keen on the illegal importing of electronic waste because we shouldn’t be a dumping ground for anyone’s garbage. It’s not fair. Other countries shouldn’t do this to Thailand,” police Col. Chatchawarn Chuchaijaroen, superintendent at the Economic Crime Suppression Division, told BenarNews.

Investigators said they found hundreds of bags containing e-waste stored in the compound and a cargo truck prepared to leave a facility in the Phanom Sarakham district. Inside a container were several bags labeled in Chinese and English text and containing rods molded from copper extracted from e-waste at a plant that was not properly licensed.

“The first factory in Pathum Thani had a license to operate an e-waste factory but the rest did not. It was wrong from the beginning,” Chatchawarn said.

Thai Pollution Control Department officials inspect e-waste recovered from a facility in Phanom Sarakham, a district in Chachoengsao province, Thailand, Sept. 26, 2023. [Handout/Thai police Economic Crime Suppression Division via BenarNews]

During the crackdown, police said they seized 1,960 electronic items, 60 laptops and more than a metric ton of electronic parts believed to be illegally imported.

Plant operators said they had purchased the items from domestic vendors, but could not produce documentation to support the claim, according to police. 

Authorities alleged that the operators committed offenses including unlicensed operation, failure to manage air pollution and other violations.

From now on, Chatchawarn said, there would be more intensive searches of e-waste facilities.

“We will show up with a court warrant without prior notice. They have to think twice if it’s worth risking being punished and even have the factory shut down,” he said.

“We will make them worry about what they do.” 

CLARIFICATION: This report has been revised to amend some parts that did not substantiate a connection between e-waste recycling plants and China.


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