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SOURCE: New York Times

DATE: December 8, 2019

SNIP: Crouched on the ground in a dimly lit factory, the women picked through the discarded innards of the modern world: batteries, circuit boards and bundles of wires.

They broke down the scrap — known as e-waste — with hammers and raw hands. Men, some with faces wrapped in rags to repel the fumes, shoveled the refuse into a clanking machine that salvages usable metal.

As they toiled, smoke spewed over nearby villages and farms. Residents have no idea what is in the smoke: plastic, metal, who knows? All they know is that it stinks and they feel sick.

The factory, New Sky Metal, is part of a thriving e-waste industry across Southeast Asia, born of China’s decision to stop accepting the world’s electronic refuse, which was poisoning its land and people. Thailand in particular has become a center of the industry even as activists push back and its government wrestles to balance competing interests of public safety with the profits to be made from the lucrative trade.

Last year, Thailand banned the import of foreign e-waste. Yet new factories are opening across the country, and tons of e-waste are being processed, environmental monitors and industry experts say.

“E-waste has to go somewhere,” said Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network, which campaigns against trash dumping in poor countries, “and the Chinese are simply moving their entire operations to Southeast Asia.”

“The only way to make money is to get huge volume with cheap, illegal labor and pollute the hell out of the environment,” he added.

Each year, 50 million tons of electronic waste are produced globally, according to the United Nations, as consumers grow accustomed to throwing away last year’s model and acquiring the next new thing.

The notion of recycling these gadgets sounds virtuous: an infinite loop of technological utility.

But it is dirty and dangerous work to extract the tiny quantities of precious metals — like gold, silver and copper — from castoff phones, computers and televisions.

In October of this year, the Thai legislature unveiled loosened labor and environmental regulations for all factories, a move that has benefited the e-waste industry. Under one provision, small companies are no longer subject to pollution monitoring.

“Thailand is welcoming environmental degradation with its own laws,” said Somnuck Jongmeewasin, a lecturer in environmental management at Silpakorn University International College. “There are so many loopholes and ways to escape punishment.”

The consequences are frightening.

If some types of electronic waste aren’t incinerated at a high enough temperature, dioxins, which can cause cancer and developmental problems, infiltrate the food supply. Without proper safeguarding, toxic heavy metals seep into the soil and groundwater.

Locals who fought against the deluge of trash have been attacked.

“Why don’t you in the West recycle your own waste?” said Phayao Jaroonwong, a farmer east of Bangkok, who said her crops had withered after an electronic waste factory moved in next door.

“Thailand can’t take it anymore,” she said. “We shouldn’t be the world’s dumping ground.”

In 2013, a village chief spoke out about the illegal dumping of toxic waste. He was shot four times in broad daylight. The man charged with ordering the killing, an official in the local Department of Industrial Works, was acquitted in September.

In the shadow of the corroded smokestack at New Sky Metal, Metta Maihala surveyed her eucalyptus plantation. The lake that waters the farm has clouded over, and the smell is nauseating.

Suddenly, through the rows of trees, a pair of Burmese workers emerged. The man showed burns on his arms from his work at New Sky Metal but said he had no idea what liquid had caused his wounds.

The woman, Ei Thazin, said she received $10 a day for sorting metal. “I didn’t know this was dangerous work,” she said.

In Thailand, millions of undocumented workers from poorer countries like Myanmar and Cambodia are vulnerable to abuse, environmental watchdogs say, adding that the need for such laborers will only intensify.

“We can’t choose the air we breathe,” said Ms. Metta, the eucalyptus farmer. “Now there will be even more factories. We are all going to die a slow death.”