New proposals are a step forward in tackling Hong Kong’s costly e-waste problem

Plans to make manufacturers pay for recycling will still mean a cost to consumers, but at least progress has been made

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 February, 2017, 1:36am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 February, 2017, 2:11am

Hong Kong’s consumers are still likely to end up paying for the cost of recycling tens of thousands of tonnes of e-waste – discarded electronic and electrical equipment. But the Environmental Protection Department’s new proposed scale of “producer pays” fees that will be borne by manufacturers and importers is a good step towards refining the way these costs can be recovered.

More than five years ago, we lamented the inflexibility of a model under which consumers would have been charged a disposal fee up front when they bought appliances like television sets and refrigerators or hi-tech products like scanners. Industry and retailers did not like it because it would have been an effective price increase, but their alternative – paying for recycling at the point of disposal – was so ripe for evasion and abuse, for example by the illegal dumping that has scarred the New Territories, that it never got off the ground.

But with the government’s HK$400 million e-waste recycling plant at Tuen Mun due to be commissioned later this year, the mechanics of the new proposal will leave room for more flexible, competitive pricing strategies, such as discounting the fees according to market conditions.

Hong Kong’s ‘producer pays’ e-waste levy to range from HK$15 to HK$165 per item

The proposed fees range from HK$15 per item for computers, scanners and printers, to HK$45 for monitors, HK$125 for washing machines and air-conditioning units and HK$165 for television sets and refrigerators. These fees will, of course, be reflected in the prices charged to retailers and consumers.

Green Earth environmental advocacy director Hahn Chu Hon-keung may have a point in saying that the rates are too low to have much effect on producers. But they are an overdue step in the right direction. The current need to dispose of about 70,000 tonnes of e-waste each year is unsustainable, with 80 per cent being exported and the remainder being dumped in landfill. The new treatment and recycling facility will be able to handle 30,000 tonnes a year.

Many details remain to be settled and conflicting views reconciled. After consideration by the Legislative Council’s environmental affairs panel, the proposal will face full council scrutiny later this year. Lawmakers should be mindful of a new report from the United Nations University that notes that Hong Kong generates the highest amount of e-waste per head of population of a dozen Asian countries, followed by Singapore and Taiwan.