Four years after the end of public consultations on producer-responsibility legislation for waste electrical and electronic equipment, the Environment Bureau is finally going to seek approval for HK$536 million in funding from lawmakers to build the first-ever large-scale plant in Hong Kong to dismantle and recycle locally generated electronic waste.
According to the government, Hong Kong produces 70,000 tonnes of electronic waste a year, 80 per cent of which is exported for reuse or recycling, while the rest is disposed of in our landfills.
Even the government cannot say whether such a huge amount of exported electronic waste is recycled safely, without causing secondary pollution. Thus Hong Kong desperately needs proper facilities to treat electronic waste, so we are not simply passing on our problem to someone else.
Electronic waste contains heavy metals and toxins that can be released when being dismantled, including mercury, cadmium and lead. Media reports have highlighted that the dismantling of electronic waste in some developing countries has polluted underground water, soil and ambient air, which has seriously affected the health of workers and people living nearby.
The government plans to set up a plant to deal with such waste, along with legislation to mandate importers and distributors pay for the building of it and the HK$200 million annual running costs, to ensure Hong Kong adopts a responsible attitude to tackling e-waste. If the producer-responsibility legislation is passed by the Legislative Council, importers and distributors will be required to pay upfront when the five kinds of electrical and electronic equipment - namely refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines, television sets and computers - are imported and sold in Hong Kong. However, the government needs money from the treasury to get the plant up and running first.
Similar legislation has been around in many jurisdictions for decades; South Korea enacted laws in 1992, Taiwan in 1998, and Sweden and Japan in 2001. Clearly, they foresaw the environmental problems that would result from the proliferation of many new types of electrical and electronic products in the information technology era.
The European Union has also set recycling targets for its member states of 45 per cent by 2016 and 65 per cent by 2019. Hong Kong aims to recycle 42 per cent of electronic waste (30,000 tonnes) annually through the new plant. This target should be reviewed from time to time.
According to the government, there are around 100 electronic waste storage facilities in the New Territories, but they are not well protected from the weather. It is the government's responsibility to collect random samples of soil and underground water to examine whether there are toxins around these storage sites, to prevent environmental degradation.
Also, the Environment Bureau should enact a ban on such waste being disposed of in our landfills once the plant is operational in late 2016. That would send another strong signal to the trade and recyclers.
While our government is trying hard to convince legislators and the public to support its proposal to expand landfills and build an incinerator, the setting up of an electrical and electronic equipment waste plant, with the related legislation, would undoubtedly alleviate pressure on our landfills. This should be supported by all lawmakers.
As a responsible society, we do not want our electronic waste to harm the health of people who have to make a living from dismantling the products with few or no proper facilities. It's time to get our electronic waste under better control.
Edwin Lau Che-feng is head of advocacy and education at Friends of the Earth (HK). www.foe.org.hk