Hong Kong becomes a dumping ground for US e-waste, research finds

A two year investigation by ­Basel Action Network attached 200 GPS trackers on broken electronic items in the US and found many ended up in dumping grounds in the New Territories.

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 June, 2016, 10:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 June, 2016, 7:04pm

Hong Kong has become a haven for exporters of electronic waste in the United States, according to an environmental group that claims the SAR has replaced the mainland to become “ground zero” for toxic electronic materials.

A two-year investigation by ­Seattle environmental group ­Basel Action Network, attached 200 GPS trackers on broken electronic items in the US, and found many ended up in dumping grounds in the New Territories.

Of the 200 trackers, 65 were found to have been exported out of the US. Out of those 65, 37 were exported to Hong Kong, making it the most popular destination for the harmful electronic waste. By contrast, eight were detected on the mainland.

“These findings are very different than our findings over the past decade, when it was observed that the vast majority of e-waste from North America went to China, and most of that to Guiyu, a township and region in Guangdong Province,” the report states. Previous research from 2002 put e-waste exports to the mainland in the spotlight.

The research project, supported by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab, is the first of its kind. Previous efforts commissioned by the US federal government to quantify e-waste being exported out of the US have only been based on trade reports or surveys from recyclers claiming to act responsibly.

BAN, by contrast, installed the trackers in printers, flat-screen monitors and cathode ray tube monitors. These items were then delivered to publicly accessible e-waste recycling drop-off sites across the US.

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The research found that many of the items – which contain toxic materials such as lead and mercury – were being exported out of the US, with the group estimating 65 of the devices to be illegal shipments due to the laws in the importing country or regional government.

“Ironically, it appears that Hong Kong, usually thought of as one of the most technologically and economically advanced areas of China, has not enforced the Chinese import ban as diligently as mainland China has done, and appears to have, in fact, become a new pollution haven,” the report reads.

The report comes as Hong Kong legislators call upon the government to better regulate and ­investigate dumping grounds on the SAR’s outskirts, which they suspect to contain hazardous electronic waste.

Accusing the government of sitting on its hands, democratic legislators this week called upon the government to investigate open air dumping grounds in the New Territories, of which around 100 are expected to exist. 

Democratic Party vice-chairman Andrew Wan Siu-kin said he had been tracking two sites ­– one in a green belt zone near the ­wetland park in Sheung Pak Nai, Tin Shui Wai; another zoned for “recreation and farming” at Hung Shui Kiu near Lau Fau Shan – which he suspected as places where electronic waste was not just stored, but also possibly processed.

“There’s no way out [for the materials], it’s contaminating Hong Kong’s environment,” said Democratic Party lawmaker Wu Chi-wa, who complained that the SAR lacked a tracking system for monitoring e-waste.

“The mainland tightened ­controls almost two years ago, so now it is more and more likely that this material is remaining in Hong Kong.”

According to Hong Kong legislators, Hong Kong has failed where mainland China has succeeded in enforcing its ban on ­importing hazardous waste, which it implemented in 2000.

The US is thought to generate 3.14 million tonnes of e-waste each year, according to the ­Environmental Protection ­Agency, with an estimated 40 per cent expected to be turned around for recycling. But owing to a bear market for many commodities found in e-waste - such as copper, plastics and steel - recyclers are opting to export the goods rather than process them domestically.

Unlike China, the US is not party to the Basel Convention, a treaty which regulates the cross-border movement of hazardous materials.

China is party to the Basel Convention, which renders it ­applicable to Hong Kong. But under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, the SAR is ­responsible for implementing separate controls on the ­cross-border movement of ­hazardous waste.

Responding to the report, the Environmental Protection Department expressed "grave concern" and on Friday said it had immediately initiated an investigation against the alleged recycling sites in the New Territories. "The EPD will not tolerate any hazardous e-waste being illegally imported to Hong Kong," a spokesman said.

The spokesman said the EPD has already contacted BAN for information and had urged them to provide US authorities "with relevant information at the same time to facilitate interception at source".

The department stressed that provisions set out in the city's Waste Disposal Ordinance were formulated "in accordance with the requirements of the Basel Convention" and were consistent with those adopted by other jurisdictions including member countries of the European Union.

The department said it had inspected about 3,200 containers in the past five years and successfully carried out prosecution of 100 cases. All illegally imported e-waste had been returned to the originating places of export, it said.