What a waste of our old phones

When you buy a new computer or mobile phone and decide to get rid of the old one, have you ever wondered what happens to it? If you sell it to someone collecting old phones on the street, it will probably be resold to a shop or another person, who will resell it to someone else.

However, it is hard to know where it will end up. Although there are many recycling businesses in Hong Kong, many of those companies collect old phones to resell for a profit. There is no law to monitor the handling of such items; the products can end up being shipped outside Hong Kong, where they could be handled improperly.

Michelle Au Wing-sze, senior environmental officer with Friends of the Earth (FoE), said she suffered a horrible experience while visiting a dumping site for electronic waste in Guiyu, Shantou city , in Guangdong province.

'I could smell the pungent odour of burning plastic,' Au said. She also saw one man heating mobile phone chips on a stove, without wearing a protective mask.

Government figures show Hong Kong produces more than 70,000 tonnes of e-waste each year. At least 10 per cent ends up in the city's landfills, while more than 80 per cent is exported for recycling in developing nations.

There is no proof the trash in Guiyu came from Hong Kong, but Au thinks it is likely owing to its proximity to Hong Kong, which is only fivehours away by road.

Her suspicions were confirmed by Greenpeace International, which found e-waste was still being exported to Guiyu as the major mainland e-waste dumping site, even though China banned e-waste imports in 2000. The green group revealed its undercover investigation on its website in 2009.

Greenpeace International said e-waste was regularly exported to developing countries from developed ones - and often in violation of international law.

Its inquiry showed that, in Britain in 2003, at least 23,000 metric tonnes of undeclared e-waste was illegally shipped to the Far East, India, Africa and China. Up to 90 per cent of collected e-waste in the US is estimated to be exported in the same way.

In India, up to 20,000 tonnes of e-waste is shipped and handled in Delhi; other scrapyards are in Meerut, Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai.

It's not entirely clear what happens in Hong Kong. 'We are [sceptical about] how some recycling companies deal with e-waste they collect,' said Mr Ho, who did not want to give his full name.

'We think most of it will be shipped to dumping sites in China, to be burnt openly.' He works for Allied Waste Disposal, a recycling company set up in Kowloon Bay in 2000, which takes e-waste from established businesses, such as Japanese video games makers.

'Companies we work with have very strict recycling regulations and procedures, so we are obliged to do everything properly,' he said. 'We will ship some parts back to Japan or the US for proper handling.

'Yet in Hong Kong, anyone can register a business and open a recycling company. No licence is needed unless you deal with hazardous materials. Many companies only do it for profit; no real recycling takes place.'

Ho said in his business, he sees the problems caused by overconsumption. 'Whenever a new model comes out, people buy it and abandon the old one, even if it is still in good condition,' he said.

'We receive numerous such products to dispose of; many designs, and the packaging, too, cannot be re-used. It's such a waste.'

Caritas Hong Kong

The Caritas Hong Kong Computer Workshop (CCW), which retrains unemployed young people, was set up by the government in 2001.

The Environmental Protection Department backed the programme to extend its recycling of computer products. CCW collects, tests and refurbishes these products. Reusable ones are given to applicants for free, or at a low cost of about HK$600 per computer.

'A lot of the computers recycled here - from 70 to 90 per cent - are reusable,' says Lau Lu-keung, the social worker in charge of the programme. Lau says components that cannot be recycled are mostly computer sound cards and motherboards.

These parts are sent to certified companies in Japan, Singapore or Belgium for proper handling.

For details, go to:

Going green from the source

One way to minimise e-waste is to begin with the source - whether or not a product is designed with a green concept in mind.

Greenpeace International's Guide to Greener Electronics has ranked leading electronics companies, such as mobile phone, TV and PC makers, since August 2006. They are ranked on policies and practices that reduce their impact on the climate, produce greener products, and make operations more sustainable.

It demands companies make high energy-efficient products that do not contain harmful substances, such as PVC plastics, and brominated flame retardants, that have been banned in some European Union countries. The guide also looks at a product's life cycle - how a company considers durability, streamlining, re-usability and ease of repair of products. Last month's results put HP best with a score at 5.9 out of 10, with Dell second on 5.1, then Nokia (4.9) and Apple (4.6).

Recycling for charity: St James' Settlement

While most e-waste is shipped outside Hong Kong with little or no monitoring of how it is dealt with, some products can be repaired and given to people that need them.

St James' Settlement, a Hong Kong Christian social welfare group, has collected and recycled electrical products, such as televisions, refrigerators and air conditioners, since 2005. It received government funding in October last year for its WEEE Go Green project and began collecting e-waste from housing estates, corporations and its centres.

Last year, it collected 277tonnes of WEEE - about 0.4 per cent of the city's total e-waste; most common were audio and video telecommunications products. Six per cent of these collected items were given back to the community after refurbishment.

All the remaining items are broken up by a qualified team, which carefully handles and stores the parts. Valuable materials, such as plastics, steel, aluminium and copper, are resold to certified recycling companies. All profits go to charity projects.

Hongkongers are slowly turning to recycling, but their attempts lag behind the development of new models. 'Technology develops at a rapid pace and many new products are launched every day,' Josephine Lee Yuk-chi, assistant chief executive of St James' Settlement, said. She said the collection and transportation of unwanted e-waste items is also a challenge. 'People in Hong Kong seldom want to carry products to collection centres, especially bulky ones.'

For details on donating WEEE items, go to:

When you recycle a mobile phone, it will be broken up into these parts, and recycled in or outside Hong Kong

From left to right: 1. plastic cover 2. PCB 3. plastic cover and keyboard 4. screws, LCD screen, plastic inner case and connectors 5. metal case 6. lithium battery

1. Mainland China 2. Japan 3. Mainland China 4. Mainland China 5. Mainland China 6. Tsing Yi chemical waste treatment centre or other places through EDP

Text and graphics provided by St James' Settlement