Last year, the Legislative Council passed legislation for the recycling of e-waste – enabling the setting up of a framework for a producer responsibility scheme on air-conditioners, fridges, TVs, washing machines, and computers and their peripherals. With a year of silence and the WEEETRF (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Treatment and Recycling Facility) set to open in mid-2017, it seemed we would have a smooth ride ahead for once.
Boy, were we wrong. After sitting on their hands for a whole year, it seems the recycling industry has suddenly felt they were threatened by the legislation. Just last month, representatives organised a protest at Tamar. In particular, they petitioned the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) to delay new licensing controls for operators and to stop enforcement against hazardous e-waste like printed circuit boards as chemical waste. They claimed the new rules would kill the industry.
The EPD must not give in to these demands however. We have long lobbied for regulating e-waste, because there are very real consequences to mismanagement – not only relating to the environment, but with neighbouring residents and workers.
Electrical and electronic equipment contain hazardous materials such as arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. They have been linked to cancer and various developmental disorders. Industry representatives have repeatedly claimed that workers only use screwdrivers when dismantling. However, media reports have disclosed that they also smash and crudely break apart devices to separate out the valuable commodities from the junk – exposing themselves to a number of health risks from the released substances.
Worse, many store their e-waste out in the open – stacked haphazardly and exposed to the elements. Toxic substances can leach out in the rain and contaminate the surrounding soil and water bodies.
In 2016, a research team from Hong Kong Baptist University sampled soil and water near e-waste recycling sites. In both cases, the concentration of heavy metals exceeded acceptable standards. The environmental and health impacts are significant and long lasting. For example, Guiyu, known as the capital of e-waste, has yet to recover from years of processing e-waste with little oversight. Its water is still undrinkable and the land infertile.
Additionally, e-waste is a known fire hazard. Lithium batteries can ignite if left in the sun or crushed. Lens on cameras or projectors can focus sunlight and start fires. Toxic substances are released as poisonous and carcinogenic fumes into the environment and to residential areas nearby. Fire risks may be further exacerbated if operators are also handling flammable recyclables like paper. Events like these are certainly not rare. According to the Fire Services Department, there are at least 15 fires at recycling sites every year.
A large amount of e-waste in Hong Kong is not local. The city is notorious for being a global transit point for exporting e-waste. Last year, the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based green group, found that many of their traced devices from the U.S. ended up in recycling storage sites in the New Territories. The government estimates that there are around 150 of such operations in Hong Kong – some are even located on greenbelts or agricultural land.
Make no mistake. We don’t have regulations to stifle businesses. As a responsible society, we have a duty to ensure the e-waste we produce is properly treated and the health of those who dismantle them well-protected. We also have to prevent the city from becoming another Guiyu. The recycling industry may claim they are operating out of altruism or for the sake of the environment. But promoting an anti-regulatory agenda is disingenuous at best, dangerous at worst. More importantly, the government needs to help the industry to fulfil the new requirements and sustain their business.
Wendell Chan is a Project Officer for Friends of the Earth (HK)