The National Environment Agency's decision to study the option of having a regulated national system to collect, recycle and manage e-waste is an urgent response to pressing circumstances. Singapore churns out 60 million kg of electronic trash every year. How little of that is recycled or disposed of properly is indicated by the fact that the most extensive community e-waste recycling programme here has managed to collect only 22,000kg of it this year. Clearly, Singapore needs more avenues for getting rid of e-waste. These recycling channels are necessary especially for items such as bulky consumer electronics and home appliances. A comprehensive system for their collection needs to be established.
However, recycling availability will have the desired outcome only if it is matched by a change in the public mindset. The need for correct disposal must be seen as a social imperative. The first step towards achieving that mindset is the understanding that electrical and electronic waste, generated by unwanted goods such as old laptops and cellphones, is no less ubiquitous than traditional waste such as used plastic containers, glass bottles, paper packaging and metal cans.
Generating either kind of waste might be considered the privilege of an affluent society driven by consumption. However, the proper disposal of e-waste is a necessary part of the economic food chain, to say nothing of the ecological one. E-waste lies in the overlapping domains of economics and the environment. It contains valuable and scarce materials but also small amounts of hazardous substances like mercury and cadmium. Simply selling off e-goods to the karung guni man or binning these is not good enough.
Singapore's National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS) points out that when such items arrive at incinerators or landfills, the toxic materials which they release pollute the environment, with the noxious effects lingering for years if the items are not biodegradable. By contrast, recycling is both an economically and an environmentally responsible act. According to the NCCS, obtaining metals from e-waste requires much less energy than mining new metals. Thus, 10kg of aluminium obtained through recycling uses no more than 10 per cent of the energy required for primary production. If nothing else, considerations of cost, which are borne ultimately by consumers, should help shape public attitudes towards the proper way of discarding electronic refuse.
The efficient disposal of electronic refuse is another way of forming the ecological maturity that enables societies to hope for sustainable technological development. Singaporeans would be short-changing themselves by believing that they can treat e-waste disposal lightly. While technological imagination might be infinite, natural resources are not. Recycling connects the two.