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TAIPEI TIMES-- Environmental Impact Assessment: Getting to grips with Taiwan’s e-waste




Environmental Impact Assessment: Getting to grips with Taiwan’s e-waste


  • By Steven Crook / Contributing reporter


Only a few other countries, mostly in Northern Europe, recycle more than 70 percent of their e-waste. Because such items typically contain minute amounts of various metals, as well as glass and plastics, breaking them down into materials that can be reused is far more complex and expensive than recycling a cardboard box or an aluminum can.

Components before and after they’ve been stripped of their gold coating using the solution and equipment in the background.



“The authorities here have been very smart, not merely learning from the EU, but looking worldwide to find international best practices,” says Armin Ibitz, an associate professor at Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages who’s written about e-waste recycling and the circular economy.


The six categories are IT equipment (such as laptops, motherboards, keyboards, monitors, and printers), TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, air-conditioning units and fans. Mobile phones aren’t included.


During a demonstration of their technology, gold slurry recovered by hydrometallurgy is melted in a magnetic induction furnace at UWin Nanotech’s base in New Taipei City.


For years, regulations made it impossible for local innovators like UWin Nanotech Co Ltd to apply their green-chemistry technologies within the country. The New Taipei City-based company, which has invented solutions that strip valuable metals from printed circuit boards (PCBs) and other types of e-waste without producing toxic wastewater, has customers in 30 countries, including China and the US.

As UWin Vice President Leo Chang (張永撙) explains, until recently PCBs had to be shredded in order to qualify for recycling subsidies. This requirement was put in place to prevent double dipping. If a piece of e-waste is left intact, an unscrupulous businessperson could report it as “recycled,” but later pretend it had just been collected, and claim a second subsidy.

According to earth.org, if e-waste ends up in a landfill, “the surrounding soil can become contaminated with toxic substances such as mercury, cadmium, beryllium and lead. These chemicals enter the soil, waterways and air, leading to polluted environments and negatively impacting human and marine life.”

Standard e-waste recycling involves dismantling by hand or robot, crushing, and then extracting metals through hydrometallurgy or pyrometallurgy or both.

There’s another problem with shredding: PCB waste isn’t always properly disposed of. Between 2016 and 2019, 2,286 metric tons of fiberglass powder from ground-up boards was dumped in a rural part of Pingtung County. Samples from the site revealed dangerously high levels of copper.

“We can handle 37 metals on the periodic table,” Chang says. He expresses confidence that rhodium — a metal far more expensive than gold — will be added to that list in the near future.


He supports EU measures which aim to ensure that more products are repaired rather than replaced within their guarantee period, and that consumers have easier and cheaper options to fix products that are technically repairable once the guarantee has expired (“the right to repair”).

If Taiwanese manufacturers want to sell IT products and components in Europe, for instance, they have to adhere to EU rules such as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive, which limits the use of certain materials in electrical and electronic equipment. Cadmium, lead and mercury are among the 10 controlled substances.

Ibitz says that in his native Austria, for some items citizens have to pay a small fee if they bring more than a certain weight of recyclables to a municipal disposal facility. In Taiwan, by contrast, it’s often possible to sell larger devices and appliances to private recycling businesses. The latter is an incentive to recycle, he says, whereas the former encourages people to keep broken-down items at home — or worse, dump them in the countryside.

Stressing the importance of education, he says that “Taiwanese are open to change and they’re willing to change.” Compared to several years ago, far more students now want to take his environment and sustainability courses. People are increasingly familiar with the concepts of ESG (environmental, social, and governance criteria for companies) and SDGs (the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals), he adds.

Steven Crook, the author or co-author of four books about Taiwan, has been following environmental issues since he arrived in the country in 1991. He drives a hybrid and carries his own chopsticks. The views expressed here are his own.