A Technological Travesty: E-waste in the Philippines

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This essay won an Honorable Mention in the 2023 YRIS High School Essay Contest for its response to the following prompt: “What is a current issue in international relations or world affairs that does not receive enough attention in global media?”


Electronic waste, or e-waste, has arisen as a critical global concern in today’s digitally-driven society, posing substantial environmental and health dangers. However, amidst this worldwide challenge, the Philippines stands out as a country disproportionately plagued by the e-waste problem. Wherever one goes, streets are ridden with broken appliances and discarded gadgets; the Philippines is one of Southeast Asia’s leading e-waste generators, with an estimated 3.9 kilograms of e-waste per capita in 2019.1

Despite its vital significance, the dilemma of e-waste in the Philippines has received little attention in the worldwide and national media, hampering efforts to identify long-term solutions. This essay aims to shed light on the environmental impact of e-waste in the Philippines, investigate the factors that contribute to its under-reporting, and review current activities addressing the problem.

E-waste comprises old electrical devices; cell phones, tablets, computers, televisions, and other home gadgets that are outdated or undesirable. These are all examples of e-waste that have become a depressingly common and dangerous sight in the Philippines; based on a report by the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Philippines generated 32,664.41 metric tons of waste electrical and electronic equipment in 2019.2 While most e-waste still contains usable materials like valuable metals, it also holds substances that are hazardous to one’s health, the environment, and the climate. As such, the rise of e-waste production and mismanagement in the Philippines is a pressing concern for the country and its future.

The urgency of eliminating e-waste in the Philippines is made clear by its effects on the Philippines’ environment. The country is a haven for a wide variety of aquatic life, including coral reefs, mangrove forests, and endangered species; improper e-waste disposal directly endangers these delicate ecosystems and results in irreparable damage and biodiversity loss. The deterioration of Manila Bay, a cornerstone of the country’s capital, underscores this issue.

Located in the heart of the city, Manila Bay is surrounded by landfills and similar informal disposals loaded with discarded electronics, gadgets, and other sources of e-waste. From there, toxic substances and chemicals seep into the ground and leach into the surrounding waters. Silt sediment samples taken from the bay’s seabed in 2019 reported traces of heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, and zinc which are suggested to be the results of discarded e-waste and factory sewage.3 This has damaged the waters to the extent that most invasive species in other tropical estuarine ports cannot survive in Manila Bay.4

Nevertheless, the matter is under-reported both nationally and globally due to several factors. Primarily, limited awareness among the general public about the hazardous nature of e-waste and its detrimental impact on the environment and health prevents the subject from receiving widespread attention. To most, once an electronic outlives its usage, it is discarded with no further thought. According to a study by engineers of the University of the Philippines Department of Environmental Engineering, there were about 22 million mobile phones discarded in 2016, with 95 percent of the respondents of a separate survey having no knowledge of proper e-waste disposal.5

Moreover, the complexities of e-waste supply networks make reliable monitoring and tracking of disposal techniques difficult. Given that e-waste trade routes involve several intermediaries, it is difficult to identify guilty parties and hold them accountable for inappropriate disposal. Predatory economic interests similarly contribute to e-waste under-reporting, with more developed countries exporting their electronic garbage to developing countries like the Philippines under the pretense of waste management solutions or other similar misleading terms. In one such case, 25,610 kg of mixed plastic rubbish packaged in 22 sling bags packaged as “assorted electronic accessories” were sent back to Hong Kong after being shipped to Mindanao, the Philippines’ second-largest island.6

While the concern of e-waste remains prevalent in the Philippines to this day, efforts are being made to tackle the topic, with the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act (Republic Act No. 9003) passed in 2000. The government act calls for proper waste disposal practices, including e-waste management, and encourages the construction of material recovery facilities, trash separation, and recycling. Additionally, international organizations such as the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) have collaborated with national agencies like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to further address this point. One example is the E-Waste ‘to! Iwasto! Project, which hopes to raise awareness of proper e-waste management and provide Filipinos with the means to dispose of their household e-waste properly; through this, the e-waste can be safely salvaged and recycled.7

Despite this, however, the Philippines’ lack of infrastructure for safe and efficient e-waste recycling limits the success of any attempts to solve the issue. The government faces challenges in developing recycling sites that are equipped with adequate equipment to handle a wide range of electronic devices, and e-waste is commonly recycled informally “by hand,” which exposes the recyclers to hazardous and carcinogenic substances present.8 While progress has been made as UNIDO and the DENR have continued to install more e-waste disposal facilities across the country, it is still a long journey before the problem can be successfully managed in the future.9

In conclusion, e-waste in the Philippines demands immediate attention and concerted action. E-waste has troubled the Philippines for decades since the rise of industrialization and globalization, and will likely continue to harm the country’s citizens and environment unless further steps are taken and current efforts are pursued. It is through careful planning and collaboration between the government, organizations, and consumers that the issue of e-waste can finally be resolved; only through collective efforts and knowledge can the environment be safeguarded, human health protected, and a better future ensured for the Philippines and the world at large.

References

Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation: Waste handling site in Patayas, Manila | Image sourced from Global Environment Facility

  1. “The Philippines: making money making e-waste safe | UNIDO.” United Nations Industrial Development Organization. (September 28, 2022). https://www.unido.org/news/philippines-making-money-making-e-waste-safe.
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  2. “EMB: National policy, regulatory framework already in place for e-waste management.” Department of Environment and Natural Resources. (October 29, 2020). https://www.denr.gov.ph/index.php/news-events/press-releases/1918-emb-national-policy-regulatory-framework-already-in-place-for-e-waste-mngt.
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  3. Enano, J. O. “Silt taken from Manila Bay positive for heavy metals.” Inquirer News. (March 21, 2019). https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1098243/silt-taken-from-manila-bay-positive-for-heavy-metals#ixzz5kAhAmLqh.
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  4. Vallejo, B. M., Aloy, A., Ocampo, M., Conejar-Espedido, J., & Manubag, L. “Manila Bay Ecology and Associated Invasive Species.” Springer International Publishing: In Coastal research library, 145–169. (2019b). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-91382-7_5.
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  5. Ballesteros, F., Jr., & Galang, M. “Estimation of Waste Mobile Phones in the Philippines using Neural Networks.” Global Nest Journal, 20(4), 767–772. (2018). https://doi.org/10.30955/gnj.002534.
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  6. “Philippines Returns Illegal Plastic and E-Waste Shipment to Hong Kong, China (Groups Insist Philippines Not a Global Trash Bin) | IPEN.” International Pollutants Elimination Network. (2019, June 4). https://ipen.org/news/philippines-returns-illegal-plastic-and-e-waste-shipment-hong-kong-china-groups-insist.
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  7. Dilim, J. “E-waste ‘to! Iwasto project reaches La Union.” PIA. (October 28, 2022). https://pia.gov.ph/features/2022/10/28/e-waste-to-iwasto-project-reaches-la-union.
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  8. Argosino, F. “How to manage e-waste: Bring to a treatment, storage and disposal facility.” Manila Bulletin. (April 6, 2022). https://mb.com.ph/2022/04/06/how-to-manage-e-waste-bring-to-a-treatment-storage-and-disposal-facility/.
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  9. Dilim. “E-waste ‘to! Iwasto project reaches La Union.” https://pia.gov.ph/features/2022/10/28/e-waste-to-iwasto-project-reaches-la-union.
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Author

  • Ayisha was a Junior at Saint Jude Catholic School in Manila, Philippines when she submitted this piece to the 2023 YRIS High School Essay Competition.