The problem of electronic waste dumping in Hong Kong must be dealt with

Cooperation with overseas agencies needs to improve to protect our environment and public health

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 June, 2016, 12:42am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 June, 2016, 1:07am

Countries with low wages, a lack of environmental protection laws and poor enforcement have long been the developed world’s dumping grounds for electronic waste. The mainland was for years the favoured destination for old computers, monitors, mobile phones and household goods from the biggest consumer market, North America. But concerns about pollution and the health impact on workers from the toxic materials involved in disassembly led two years ago to a clampdown, and operations have moved elsewhere. Scrap heaps in Hong Kong’s New Territories are surprisingly where many such items now appear to end up.

That is the conclusion of an investigation into US e-waste exports by the American environmental group Basel Action Alliance. It put tracking devices on 200 items sent to US recycling centres and of the 65 found to have been exported, 37 were traced to Hong Kong. Just eight ended up on the mainland. The Environmental Protection Department has understandably launched its own inquiry.

Hong Kong, after all, has waste disposal laws in line with the Basel Convention, an international treaty regulating the cross-border movement of hazardous materials. China is a party to the pact, but the US has refused to join and is the only developed nation to opt out. American electronics companies have successfully lobbied against laws making them responsible for the safe disposal of their products, and the high cost of recycling has led to dumping in Asia and Africa. China’s vigorous enforcement of regulations and Hong Kong’s lower wages and huge volumes of container traffic make it a desirable destination.

Hong Kong government accused of failing to uphold international law over import of electronic waste

The EPD is aware of this; over the past five years, 100 successful prosecutions have resulted from the 3,200 containers it has searched. But about 20.1 million containers passed through our port last year, making for a potentially huge amount of illegal waste being landed. Scrap yards can profit from the valuable materials like copper, iron, silicon and gold extracted during the recycling process, but there are also dangerous heavy metals from LCD screens and old televisions and toxic substances from plastics that can be released into the air or leach into the soil.

The US is not the only culprit: e-waste also makes its way around the world from Europe and other developed economies. Pressuring the US to join the convention would decrease illegal exports. The EPD is working on widening the number of categories. But much more effort is required on enforcement and cooperation with overseas agencies and governments.