Lao Lawmakers Approve New E-Waste Restrictions

But questions remain on how far the new law goes and whether it contains an exemption for ‘quality’ e-waste.

Officials from the Lao prime minister’s office and other government agencies inspect a Hokeng Metal Processing Co. e-waste plant before operations were suspended, May 2016.

The Lao National Assembly has approved new legislation that seeks to restrict the import of electronic waste, but it’s unclear if the new rules include a loophole that will still allow e-waste to be dumped in the Southeast Asian country.

“Currently, Laos is facing pollution problems and many containers of electronic waste are imported,” National Assembly Vice President Bounpone Bouthtanavong said during the assembly’s debate this month over the new e-waste management law.

“Many investors have established the waste-plants with the excuse of creating employment and generating income for to the locals, but the locals are not aware of the negative impacts to environment as well as to the people,” he added.

Electronic waste is produced when almost any household or business item containing circuitry or electrical components or a battery is discarded.

The goods may have outlived their usefulness, but computers, televisions, batteries and other castoff electronics contain copper, lead and other valuable minerals that can be recycled and sold.

Recycling the e-waste can be beneficial to the environment, but without proper controls it can endanger the environment and the reclamation workers.

Global production of e-waste came to nearly 42 metric tons in 2014, according to a report by the United Nations University.

Getting a handle on the amount of e-waste shipped into a particular country is difficult, but the Basel Action Network tracked e-waste from the U.S. and found that 40 percent of the waste it tracked in 2016 went to Asia.

Most of the e-waste tracked by the Basel Action Network ended up in China, but high-profile problems, including contaminated farm fields and sick villagers, with e-waste recycling in Laos have raised concerns there.

Earlier this year authorities in Laos ordered the Hokeng Metal Processing Company to suspend operations at an e-waste plant in the Vientiane Special Economic Zone because the company failed to install proper pollution controls.

While the Hokeng plant is the initial target of the government’s action, other e-waste plants in Laos are also facing additional scrutiny, and new e-waste plants are banned, according to a June 14 notice issued by Phet Phomphiphack, a senior Lao official that was obtained by RFA’s Lao Service.

Defining a “quality” e-waste

The text of the new e-waste law passed by the national assembly will take days or weeks before it is publicly available, so it’s unclear if the law will ban only “poor-quality” e-waste.

It is a loophole that many in the assembly appeared to want closed.

“Why do we use the term electronic wastes with poor quality?” said Valy Vetsaphong, a National Assembly member who represents the capital of Vientiane.

“I do not need this law to be approved because it has a loophole which any operator can use to apply for permission for imports,” she added. “If it is called a ‘quality waste,’ it gets complicated.”

While Lao lawmakers debated the wisdom of delineating e-waste on the basis of quality, Lao citizens appear to question the wisdom of allowing e-waste into the country at all.

“On one hand, establishment of the waste-plant will create employment for some local people, but on the other hand it is harmful to the environment and people,” a Lao citizen told RFA on condition of anonymity. “I think e-waste must be banned permanently, but let’s see how the new prime minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, can handle this issue.”

‘Every country in the world rejects electronic waste’

Another resident told RFA that many Laos are worried that their nation will become a dumping ground.

“Many people are concerned about this issue because Laos not only has problems with electronic waste, but also with general waste,” said another Lao, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The country cannot manage them completely,” he added. “I see foreign investors come here to establish the electronic-waste plants because they are not allowed to do that in their countries.”

It was a fear that was echoed by National Assembly lawmaker Valy Vetsaphong.

“This needs to be carefully considered because every country in the world rejects electronic waste,” she said.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.