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Not a wasted opportunity
Electronic waste such as old mobile gadgets or computers is generally viewed by governments as a problem that needs to be managed. As such, many authorities seek to export such e-waste to developing countries which are paid to receive and process it. However, there are negative impacts of these practices on countries that take in these discarded materials. China, for instance, has decided to ban the import of waste.
At the same time, governments are being pressured by environmental groups to pay more attention to legislating e-waste. In Singapore, several initiatives - including the Resource Sustainability Bill - are aimed at managing the increasing volume of these materials.
It's a different story when it comes to businesses, however. In their effort to recycle, industry players have shown that they see the economic value of e-waste.
A study by Aidan Wong, Assistant Professor of Humanities (Education) at the Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Social Sciences, argues that "the value of e-waste forms the basis for further processing and re-introduction into production as raw material".
E-waste is recycled by breaking it down into smaller parts and then distinguishing between the serviceable and unserviceable components. Often, the useable portions end up being sold to electronic and electrical goods repair shops, while the unserviceable parts are further broken down into the components that contain precious metals. These components are then burnt to recover precious metals that undergo several rounds of purification.
Governments are starting to recognise the value of e-waste, but their motivation is often related to environmental sustainability issues. To this end, they give support to initiatives by industry to reap the economic benefits of e-waste recycling.
However, as industry is driven by a business imperative, they must be guided and regulated by governments to ensure that they do not ignore their environmental responsibilities in the pursuit of profit, says Asst Prof Wong. That said, overly tight regulation of the recycling industries by governments can stymie their growth, and hamper efforts towards environmental sustainability, he adds.
A competitive differentiator
By sourcing for raw materials from recycled e-waste, businesses can differentiate themselves in the market by being viewed as more environmentally conscious.
"Consumers may be motivated to purchase electronic and electrical goods that have components that are made from recycled precious metals. Besides expanding their customer base to include those who are motivated by environmental concerns, businesses may also turn to recycled precious metals as a means to supplement their raw material purchasing strategy by looking to recycled precious metals as a potentially more stable source of raw materials," says Asst Prof Wong.
To maximise the benefits of these efforts, companies need to expand their collection networks, and to increase their visibility to the general public. Companies should also invest in R&D-related precious metals recovery, and develop new technologies and solutions that increase the quality and quantity of precious metals that can be recovered from the process.
Asst Prof Wong also notes that labour plays a key role in the recycling process. In particular, Karung Guni - the colloquial term for the rag-and-bone men - have a wide network of customers whom they visit door-to-door on a regular basis. "In this sense, they are mobile labour who bring the e-waste collection point to the doorstep of waste producers, and subsequently act as an important economic actor by dismantling and sorting the waste before selling this on to e-waste recycling companies. While mechanisation may be possible at other stages of the recycling process, the significant role played by labour in the collection of the e-waste remains," he says.
However, there are obstacles to maximising the e-waste that can be recycled. Firstly, many consumers are anxious about parting with their e-waste because of potentially sensitive data that their discarded gadgets may contain. "Many of our laptops, personal computers, hard disk drives and smartphones store personal information and we are understandably anxious that it should not fall into the wrong hands," says Asst Prof Wong. "Thus, one key hurdle is to make readily available technology that scrubs clean the data stored on our devices." Furthermore, the public still has a negative view towards waste as matter that needs to be disposed of in the most efficient manner - most often into bins and incinerators.
"Thus, efforts need to be undertaken to create social awareness around the veritable 'gold mine' that resides in our drawers and homes, and embodied in our e-waste."
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This is a monthly series on SMU research which aims to create significant impact by addressing these five societal challenges: Economies & Financial Markets, Social Fabric & Quality of Life, Boundaries & Borders, Sustainability, Innovation & Technology.
In this issue, SMU researchers offer insights on tackling the societal challenge of managing for sustainability.