By Steffi Koh
SINGAPORE – More than 300,000 refrigerators are thrown out in Singapore every year – including during the annual Chinese New Year spring-cleaning.
What’s not widely known, is that many of the waste disposal companies that handle them do not have the know-how to safely extract and recycle the toxic gases in this common household appliance, despite guidelines from the National Environment Agency.
This is revealed in an investigation by Channel NewsAsia’s new documentary The Trash Trail, which premieres on Monday, Jan 30.
Household appliances that are to be incinerated must be stripped of all recyclable materials, including compressors, which contain toxic refrigerant gases like Freon, which are harmful to one’s health and to the environment.
But when Trash Trail observed the situation at a neighbourhood bin centre, as well as at a facility run by one of Singapore’s largest public waste collectors, it found that discarded refrigerators were simply dismantled or crushed. This destroys the compressors, and causes refrigerant gas to be vented into the atmosphere.
Each discarded refrigerator contains the same amount of toxic greenhouse gases produced by a car being driven from Singapore to Johor Bahru.
Trash Trail also observed that the workers at a bin centre do not wear respirator masks or other forms of protection when dismantling the refrigerators.
Electronics waste consultant and managing director of Vans Chemistry, Mr Venkatesha Murthy, said: “It has to be properly extracted from the compressor and it has to be incinerated or recovered back in an enclosed manner.”
Over time, direct exposure to the gases can cause asthmatic symptoms, skin allergies and mental disorders, he warned.
When asked how they dealt with the compressors, Mr Phillip Lim, operations director of environmental services provider 800 Super, said: “Once we crush it, they would release the gas, but it’s not harmful anyway.”
Mr Murthy blames the industry’s callous treatment of refrigerant gases on the lack of awareness.
“They (waste collectors) are only interested to take out the good parts, as long as they are able to sell, they are happy about it,” he said. “The key problem is that they are not aware of what is inside this electronic stuff, like toxic metals and chemicals.”
FOLLOWING THE MURKY TRAIL
According to NEA’s list of more than 50 private companies that run recycling facilities, only one, Vemac Services, offers refrigerant gas removal services, as of the time of this report.
Vemac Services, which claims to be Singapore’s only facility that owns a specialised refrigerant gas extraction machine, said they only extract refrigerant gases from industrial cooling units, as household refrigerators do not contain enough gas to justify the operation costs.
But what if your old refrigerator is removed by the retailer you bought your new replacement from – where does it end up? According to a survey of 1,000 people that Trash Trail commissioned, 40 per cent hand off their old refrigerators to retailers when they purchase a newer model.
One retailer, Parisilk, said that they receive up to 200 old appliances in a month, including refrigerators. They said that in recent years, they have had difficulty finding a waste collector that will accept the white goods.
Mr Murthy said that many discarded refrigerators also end up being removed by the informal sector – that is, unlicensed waste collectors – and few know how the Freon and toxic gases are being handled or disposed of.
NEA CONDUCTING STUDY TO DEVELOP OPTIONS FOR E-EWASTE
When contacted, NEA said that “bulky home appliance like refrigerators and washing machines, are mostly sent to second-hand dealers or facilities to recover the constituent metals”.
On refrigerant gases, NEA added: “While there is no obligation under the international treaty to prevent venting of refrigerant gases, Singapore encourages the recycling and re-use of the refrigerants used in industrial and commercial systems.”
When released into the atmosphere, refrigerant gases like Freon and its newer counterpart hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) can exacerbate climate change.
Mr Murthy stressed the need for formal regulations in the e-waste recycling industry, aside from general policies like the Environmental Protection Act.
In a response to Trash Trail’s findings, NEA said it is currently conducting a study to develop options for an e-waste management system. It cited the examples of Taiwan, South Korea, Europe and the United States, which “ensure that the costs of proper end-of-life management of electrical and electronic products are borne by the appropriate stakeholders”.
A recent United Nations study highlighted Singapore as one of Asia’s biggest producers of e-waste per capita, at 19 kg per person in 2015. The report also urged countries to improve recycling and disposal methods.