The deadly trade in electronic waste

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2011, 12:00am


Potentially dangerous electronic waste is being exported to the mainland by operators of waste dumps in the New Territories just months after Beijing implemented a ban.

The mainland's law was passed in 2008 but it has taken several years to implement. Despite the delay, the Hong Kong government has yet to figure out a sustainable approach to managing its own electronic waste.

The Sunday Morning Post discovered at least two sites in Ping Che where workers confirmed that the waste they were working on - which contains potentially hazardous substances including lead and mercury - was headed for the mainland.

The government insists the waste is not hazardous, even though its own documents list some of the material at the site as dangerous to the environment and people.

A worker at a large open-air site in Ping Che also confirmed the waste, mainly computer monitors and television sets, was not from Hong Kong and had been imported, mainly from America, before being exported to the mainland.

'It goes to the mainland,' the employee said. 'Of course, they say they won't take it but we find a way to get it there. The boss knows the routes.'

The employee said the owner was from the mainland and that the business did not have a name. Parked outside was a shipping container which is believed to have brought in a new shipment of electronic waste.

At another Ping Che site, eight workers were dismantling a range of electronic waste when the Post visited. They said the business had been in operation for a 'long time'. Yet, the government said as recently as last month that the site was still vacant.

The unpaved site, about 3,000 square feet, had no shelter from the weather; workers laboured under beach umbrellas or in the shade of a nearby tree. The ground was littered with broken glass, plastic and casings.

The government said it inspected the site this month and found 'no violation of environmental law requirements' and observed 'some simple dismantling operations'.

The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) said that non-hazardous materials can be exported without a permit.

'Recyclable waste to be imported into the mainland shall meet the requirements of the mainland authorities and follow their system of customs and quality control,' a department spokesman said.

But during the Post visit to one of the Ping Che sites last week, workers were seen handling a range of products that have been identified by an official government document as potentially hazardous. These included printers and scanners, which a consultation document released by the Environment Bureau last January clearly states contains parts and components that have toxic substances that can harm humans.

At the Ping Che site, the parts were collected into several large calico bags, filled to the brim with circuit boards, exposed wiring, motor drivers and other internal parts of printers, fax machines and other used office equipment.

The consultation document, which was used by the government as part of a proposal to introduce a 'polluter pays' scheme, also detailed the hazardous materials such as lead and mercury in televisions and monitors.

While the EPD insisted that the work being carried out at these sites was legitimate and not harmful to the environment or humans, they were unable to state how this assessment was made.

A department spokeswoman said there was no official documentation defining hazardous and non-hazardous electronic waste that staff could use to assess electronic waste found at the sites in the New Territories. Rather, it was a matter of staff simply having the information as part of their job skills.

Under the waste disposal ordinance, hazardous materials are 'not suitable for submission to a reprocessing, recycling or recovery operation or for reuse'.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong continues to import large amounts of electronic waste for processing. It also collects details of where hazardous waste is sent. Last year, for example, almost 300 tonnes of used batteries, worth about HK$4,000 a tonne, were sent to South Korea. The government has also intercepted illegal shipments of hazardous electronic waste, most of it from the US. Last year, this source accounted for 25 illegal shipments of a total of 558 tonnes.

Each year, Hong Kong generates more than 70,000 tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment with the figure growing 2 per cent annually.

These are edited versions of two articles which appeared in the Sunday Morning Post on May 8