South Korea is coping with increasing amounts of garbage from electronic devices, also called “e-waste.” To prevent tons of old computers, smartphones and appliances from ending up in landfills, leaking toxic chemicals, some local governments are launching specialized e-waste recycling programs.
It is the end of the road for these broken, outdated and unwanted electronics.
Seoul city throws out some 10 tons of e-waste each year, and about a fifth of that arrives at this recycling center. Here at the SR Center, devices are taken apart so that valuable metals like gold, copper or rare earths can be extracted -- a 3.8 billion-dollar industry, according to the government.
But it is not just about earning profits, says the center’s CEO Ji Un-geun. It is about protecting the environment.
“Our planet has a limited amount of natural resources," he said. "Our company contributes to a sustainable society, by conserving these materials”
Ji says about 90 percent of what is brought here gets recycled.
Accumulating mounds of electronic trash is not only a concern in technologically-advanced South Korea.
The United Nations reports millions of tons of the world’s e-waste winds up in developing countries. There, toxic materials like lead and mercury pose a severe health risk. That is despite international agreements that ban the export of discarded electronics.
Since 2009, the Seoul City government has partnered with the SR Center to collect e-waste from the public and private sectors.
Seoul’s Lee Tae-hong says recycling is also a security matter in the digital age.
“If devices like phones are not recycled, then they could illegally end up in other countries like China or in Southeast Asia, and personal data could be stolen,” he said.
Even though recycling centers like this limit the amount of landfill-bound electronics, it is not enough, according to some environmental watchdog groups.
Digitally-savvy South Koreans keep buying more gadgets. In the end, some estimate that about 21 percent of the country’s total e-waste actually gets properly recycled.
That is according to Lee Joo-hong of the Green Consumers Network. He says the average South Korean purchases a new mobile phone every one and a half years.
“People change their phones so quickly partially because companies offer big subsidies to buy new products," he said. "And Korean consumers do not want to feel left out by not having the latest model.”
Ji Un-geun of Seoul’s recycling center agrees that consumer habits are a big reason why old phones keep piling up here. But he says he is doing his part to reduce that.
“I have had this same phone for 10 years," he said. "It is what I can do to help conserve our natural resources”
Ji says more South Korean cities need to start their own recycling programs to keep up with the increasing loads of e-waste.