In the movie Wall-E, a lone robot roams an Earth that has been left in rubble. It’s no longer skyscrapers lining the sides of the pavement—huge mountains of trash tower over us instead.

That might sound like a dystopian future. But it shows us what our future could look like if we don’t confront our waste problem. E-waste is one of the fastest-growing waste streams on Earth, with the world discarding at least $62.5 billion worth of e-waste annually, the World Economic Forum reported. That’s more than twice of Cambodia’s current GDP.

How can governments help to reduce e-waste? Ron Wong, Director of the Waste Management Division at the National Environmental Agency (NEA), shares how Singapore works with industry players and citizens to recycle electronic waste.

Buried in e-waste

Singapore generates around 60,000 tonnes of electronic waste (e-waste) annually. That’s equal to each person in Singapore throwing away 70 mobile phones, NEA said.

If we don’t decrease the e-waste that we produce, it’s not only the heap of trash that piles up. We are also exposing ourselves to more health risks.

When e-waste is burnt, it releases toxic fumes that increase the risk of respiratory illnesses. Harmful metals and chemicals used to make electrical products can also seep into the soil and pollute waterways.

We are also running a race against time. The e-waste problem further places pressure on Singapore’s limited resources and waste management infrastructure like landfills, Wong shares. Singapore’s only landfill, Pulau Semakau, will be filled by 2035, the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) reported.

“It’s important for us to shift from a linear economy to a circular one,” Wong highlights. Resources are reused endlessly in a circular economy. Instead of going straight to the landfill, they are given new lives by being turned into other products.

Recycling e-waste presents a huge opportunity in shifting to a circular economy. The pile of e-waste in our landfills is actually a goldmine of valuable resources. Metal parts from discarded computers can be reused to create phones or new computers. This is more sustainable than mining for more metals and further reducing our limited supply of resources.

Partnering industry players

Singapore’s Zero Waste Masterplan, which aims to reduce the amount of waste by 30 per cent by 2030, has identified e-waste as a key focus.

To do so, Singapore brought together industrial players—producers, retailers, and recyclers—to “co-create an e-waste EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) system tailored to Singapore’s needs,” Wong shares. This means that those producing and supplying electronic products are responsible for ensuring that e-waste is recycled in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Producers, who supply or produce electronic products to retailers, have to finance how the e-waste is properly collected and recycled. In Singapore, they pay a fee to an e-waste recycling company, ALBA E-Waste Smart Recycling, to recycle the products for them.

Retailers, who sell the products directly to consumers, are required to bring the old electronic products to the recycling centres upon delivering the new products, Wong adds.

For example, when you buy a fridge from a retailer and get it delivered to your house, you can ask the retailer to take back your old fridge at no cost. The retailer will then pass the old fridge to the e-waste recycling centre, whose services are paid for by the producer, Wong explains.

“As the system matures and people are more aware, we expect the amount of e-waste collected to increase,” Wong highlights. Since producers are paying for the recycling of electronic products, the EPR system will also attract more e-waste recycling companies to set up in Singapore.

Engaging citizens

Beyond industrial players, citizens can play a huge role in managing e-waste too. Only one in ten young Singaporeans recycle e-waste. Out of those, three in ten throw e-waste in the wrong bin, a survey revealed.

NEA has been raising citizen awareness about e-waste recycling. For instance, it provides a map of the 500 e-waste recycling bins in Singapore on its website. ALBA also organises quarterly collection drives four times a year at housing blocks. Residents can also collect points and redeem prizes whenever they recycle their electronic products at ALBA’s e-waste collection points.

An important step toward sustainability is also to reduce the amount of e-waste going into the bins in the first place. When our electronic products are spoilt, we can consider repairing them instead of throwing them away and buying new products.

Repair Kopitiam, a community-based initiative, aims to create a more sustainable mindset amongst consumers. Volunteers teach residents how to fix their broken electronic products free of charge.

It also organised the #EWASTENOMORE challenge in 2021 with SGTECH, a trade association for Singapore’s tech industry, encouraging citizens to invent a new product using parts from broken electrical appliances.

Through supporting these initiatives, NEA hopes to “rally everyone to come together and play a part in Singapore’s aim to become a zero-waste nation,” Wong shares.

Success stories around the world

Since the start of NEA’s EPR scheme in July 2021, ALBA has collected 3500 tonnes of e-waste, Grace Fu, the Minister of MSE, reported. This is thrice as much as NEA’s previous voluntary partnership with industrial players to recycle e-waste.

The movement to reduce e-waste is gaining traction in other countries too. Reboxed, a London startup, allows users to buy, sell or swap second-hand mobile phones instead of tossing them straight into the landfill.

There are also exciting innovations in tackling the e-waste problem. Scientists from the National Technological University (NTU) in Singapore used fruit peels to extract precious metals from disposed batteries, which can then be used to create new batteries.

While Wall-E’s reality depicts an abandoned, trash-filled world, our Earth’s future has not been set in stone yet. “With a proper system, we can prevent negative impacts to the environment,” Wong emphasises. The government, industrial players, and citizens must work together to reduce e-waste.