Toxic e-waste exposed to the elements in open-air depots

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 May, 2011, 12:00am

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The contrast could not be starker. In a small, quiet backstreet of Ping Che in the rural New Territories, the distant view is of picturesque hills, while the foreground is pile after pile of electronic waste.

Dumped in a haphazard manner that creates a man-made terrain of plastic heaps, computer monitors sit atop cassette tape players and bulky analogue television sets. Crushed in among the bulkier debris are hundreds of beige printers and fax machines.

And everything, as it waits to be dismantled, is completely exposed to the elements.

This is how Hong Kong treats its e-waste before it gets shipped to developing countries. Despite the potential harm the toxic mix can cause to humans and the environment, the government is doing little to change the situation.

Hong Kong produces more than 70,000 tonnes of e-waste every year, about 10 per cent of which ends up in its own landfills.

The rest is exported to developing countries for recycling, but before it is shipped off, the e-waste is stored in open-air facilities in industrial areas such as Ping Che and Sha Tau Kok in Fanling and Yick Yuen Road in Yuen Long.

The Environmental Protection Department knows of about 120 outdoor storage sites where thousands of discarded electronic appliances lie exposed to the sun, rain and humidity every day.

Last year, the department received 24 complaints about a number of these sites on issues related to dust, noise, wastewater discharges and improper land use.

A departmental information officer, Felix Leung Ka-wang, said that while no violations of environmental laws were found, 'upon site inspections, we issued advice on improvement measure where necessary'. The department refused to detail what these improvement measures were. It would only to say that the sites were subject to a range of laws covering air, noise and water pollution and waste disposal.

'EPD would take appropriate enforcement actions against the concerned site operators if any nuisances or pollution in contravention of environmental ordinances are found,' Leung said.

However, Leung and the department refused to answer questions about several sites in Ping Che that appeared to be e-waste storage facilities operating with questionable work practices.

The sites were identified when the Post visited the area. A staff member at one site was seen to be working without protective gear, dismantling computer units and monitors on tables in the open air under beach umbrellas.

At another site, dozens of bundled printer cartridges were stacked in neat piles, while outside the gate the ground was littered with plastic casings of printer toners and cartridges.

Leung said the sites identified by the department were for 'storage, repackaging, sale of second-hand or used office equipment and household electrical appliances, though a small number of them also engage in baling and simple dismantling operations that involve no processing of chemical or hazardous waste'.

But this contradicts an official document released by the Environment Bureau in January in which the Environment Secretary Edward Yau Tang-wah states that Hong Kong has a robust demand for 'televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners and a wide variety of computer products' and that all these items 'contain hazardous substances which should be properly treated at the end of their useful life'.

Leung's assertion on behalf of the department that the temporary storage areas do not process any hazardous waste also contradicted the document, which states that 'the temporary storage of this waste electrical and electronic equipment pending shipment has caused environmental hazards in Hong Kong'.

The document points out that 'in time, demand for second-hand products in developing countries is expected to decline as the living standard improves and awareness of sustainability develops'.

The document was released as part of a government proposal to introduce a 'polluter pays' system for disposal of e-waste, prompted by the mainland's ban on importing thiswaste.

Hong Kong used to send much of its e-waste to the mainland but as of January 1 this year, the mainland will no longer accept e-waste because of pollution problems caused by other countries' electronic rubbish.

Despite the urgency for Hong Kong to become self-sufficient in managing e-waste, as stated in the document, the team overseeing the consultation process on the 'polluter pays' system is behind schedule and the findings, which were due by early this year, will not be out until later this year.

The document details the impact of e-waste on human health and the environment. Lead and mercury, two elements typically found in electrical appliances and computers, can retard children's development and damage the kidneys, liver and neural, circulatory and reproductive systems, it says. Some e-waste contains chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, which destroy the ozone layer and contribute to climate change.

Waste dealers do not have to register as a business under the Waste Disposal Ordinance, so the real number of temporary open-air storage facilities for e-waste is not known.

Components of e-waste and how they hit our health

Lead: kidney, neural, circulatory and reproductive damage; cognitive deficits in children

Copper: gastrointestinal tract irritation; liver and kidney damage; brain disorder

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs): carcinogenic, they affect immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems

Mercury: liver and neural damage

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochloro-fluorocarbons (HCFCs): destroy the protective ozone layer above the earth; contribute to global climate change

Phosphor: osteoporosis

Barium: weakness, breathing difficulties and cardiac irregularities

Cadmium: kidney and skeletal damage

Brominated flame retardant: cognitive deficits; impact on thyroid and sex hormone secretion

PVC: releases dioxins and other carcinogenic substances when burned

Beryllium: carcinogen, causes lung disease

Chromium: toxic effects in cells; DNA damage

Toners: irritate respiratory system

Source: Environment Bureau