A tug of war over e-waste

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 December, 2011, 12:00am


The news

According to Hong Kong's government, more than 70,000 tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment waste (known as WEEE) is generated in the city each year.

Its volume has been increasing at an annual rate of 2 per cent.

More than 80 per cent of such waste is recycled. Most of it is sold through secondhand dealers to developing countries for re-use and recovery of valuable materials.

To deal with the growing e-waste, a public consultation was held last January. After the consultation, the government proposed legislation last month for a mandatory producer responsibility scheme (PRS). Under the proposal, a recycling fee would be imposed on WEEE, which will be included in the purchase of new electrical and electronic products.

The fee would be between HK$100 and HK$250 per item. The fees would fund a new WEEE treatment plant.

The issue: whose responsibility is it?

Friends of the Earth (FoE) has criticised the proposal. The green group says it betrays the true meaning of PRS, which has been implemented elsewhere.

It argues that manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers should share the costs of recycling. But the government proposed the fee be collected at shops which means it will be passed on to customers directly.

Edwin Lau Che-feng, director of general affairs at FoE, wrote in the South China Morning Post: '[Our] government should make the trade understand the principle of producer responsibility. But the international practice and principle of producer responsibility has been distorted so as to help the trade find ways to get around it.'

That risks turning the producer responsibility scheme into a consumer responsibility scheme, FoE says.

'In [other countries], the cost is shared by different parties, such as the manufacturers, importers and distributors, rather than solely by consumers. If this legislation is passed, Hong Kong could become the only jurisdiction to put the responsibility of WEEE management [entirely] onto consumers,' said Michelle Au Wing-sze, the group's senior environmental affairs officer.

A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) responded by saying that it would be up to individual retailers to decide how much of the fee they would pass onto customers. Au counters that most retailers would likely just transfer the total cost onto consumers.

Peter Chu Ka-lok, chairman of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Electrical Appliances Merchants Association, is supportive of the idea of shared responsibility between consumers, importers and retailers. But he said the association had yet to discuss the matter and form a consensus.

'I think our government is afraid of the industry. [It] should make companies agree on shared responsibility,' Au said.

FoE has put together a counter proposal for the government.

It suggests the government regulate WEEE and follow the example of European Union legislation, which includes: requiring the producers to pay an advanced recycling fee; setting a recycling target of 4kg per capita per year; and having a recycling rate of 80 to 90 per cent for every kind of electronic item.

FoE has also suggested a WEEE system based on the model in Taiwan.

There, all parties - including importers, distributors and retailers - have to contribute to the recycling fee that goes to a central fund dedicated to handling e-waste.

The fund is monitored by a council, which includes the minister of environment, industrialists, scholars and consumer representatives.

'If the government doesn't implement the legislation at the top level of the production chain and demand every party share in the recycling cost, it will not help Hong Kong to handle its WEEE properly,' Au said.


European Union

The EU's main directive for environmental protection and resource efficiency is the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. It has been in effect since February 2003. Its parameters have been adopted for electrical waste systems worldwide, presently including 27 member countries of the EU, California and Washington states in the US, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the mainland.

The regulations aim to increase the reuse and recycling of e-waste. They place the burden of recycling on manufacturers. The EU's Basle Convention further protects people and the environment from hazardous waste.


Sweden is party to the EU's WEEE Directive. It has enforced regulations to cut electrical waste since 2001. It leads among EU countries by fully recycling more than half of electrical waste, including old appliances, metal, plastic and glass.


In 1998, an e-waste management legal structure was implemented which forbids consumers from throwing out electric goods with their household rubbish. The same year the Ordinance on the Return and Disposal of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (ORDEE) was established.

The Swiss e-waste programme was established in 2003 and versions of the programme are run in several other countries like China, India, South Africa, Peru, Columbia and Brazil. The aim is to improve the handling of e-waste in developing countries.

United States

There is no federal legislative mandate for the recycling of e-waste. Several states, however, have enacted their own mandatory e-waste legislation recovery programmes. The best in this are California and Washington.


Britain is part of the EU's WEEE Directive. Its regulations were introduced into British law in January 2007. They mandate that producers of e-products have to finance the costs of collection and treatment of their waste. Several amendments to the regulations were made in 2009.


Thailand requires import and export permits for electronic waste goods. In 2009, the country took up a new standard of e-waste management for companies on a voluntary basis following the guidelines of the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS).


Recycling nearly half of its e-waste, the country is high on the world average scale in this matter. In 1998, the Recycling Fund Management Committee (RFMC) system was introduced, and nine recycling plants for e-waste were in place by 2007. The country requires producers to recycle 75 per cent of their annual production to ensure manufacturer responsibility. It follows WEEE and RoHS standards.


E-waste recycling industries are prominent in India. In June 2011, India introduced an e-waste law that requires producers to take financial responsibility for the management of their e-waste.


Since the 1970s, the Ministry of Welfare has been sorting electronic waste from regular waste. It also employs specialists to dismantle and recycle the waste. Japan's Law for the Recycling of Specified Kinds of Home Appliances requires both consumers and manufacturers to recycle used home appliances.


E-waste laws focus on the ban of imports and exports. They are similar to EU standards. In January 2010, Beijing introduced a plan to enforce a mandatory PRS to support waste reduction, recovery and recycling.

South Korea

The electronic waste recycling industry is prominent in South Korea. In 1992, the law for Promotion of Resources Saving and Reutilisation was enacted. By January 2003, the country had launched the producer recycling system under an amendment of the recycling act. In January 2008, it adopted a WEEE policy and law for recycling e-waste.

Hong Kong's landmarks on waste reduction


The Waste Reduction Framework Plan (WRFP), which set out various initiatives of waste management, was introduced. The plan aimed to minimise the amount of municipal solid waste and extend the useful life of Hong Kong's limited landfills.


EPD launched the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Recycling Programme to encourage the public to recycle their waste. The items collected from households and individuals would be repaired and donated for charity or dismantled for reuse and recycling. In the same year, the Source Separation of Waste (SSW) programme was also launched. More than 1,600 estates have since joined.

December 2005

A Policy Framework for the Management of Municipal Solid Waste (2005-2014) was published. It set out the strategy for tackling the city's waste problem under the 'polluter pays' principle. PRS has become the key policy for waste reduction, recovery and recycling.

Under the scheme, manufacturers, importers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers are required to share the responsibility of collecting, recycling, treating and disposing of end-of-life products. The framework includes six product categories: vehicle tyres, plastic shopping bags, electrical and electronic equipment, packaging materials, beverage containers and rechargeable batteries.


EcoPark, the first business recycling park, was established in Tuen Mun. The site provides rentable land to the recycling and environmental industry. The government injected US$33 million into building the facility.

There are currently 14 tenants in the first two of the planned six phases. These companies handle different kinds of waste, including used cooling oil, plastics, construction materials and WEEE.

July 2008

The Product Eco-responsibility Ordinance was enacted to provide a legal framework for implementing mandatory PRS.

July 2009

The environmental levy on plastic shopping bags came into operation. It was the first PRS implemented under the Product Eco-responsibility Ordinance.

January to April 2010

Consultation on introducing legislation on a mandatory PRS for the proper management of WEEE began.