Not using new e-waste collection service could harm environment, Hong Kong minister warns
Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing issues public reminder about dangers of improper disposal of electronics as government scheme kicks off
Consumers and sellers who choose not to make use of a new government scheme for the disposal of electrical appliances could unknowingly harm the environment, a top Hong Kong official has warned.
Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing issued the public reminder as a producer responsibility scheme covering air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, television sets, computers, printers, scanners and monitors entered into force on Wednesday.
“People who opt to, like in the past, dispose of these items haphazardly or just sell it off to door-to-door collectors who could just end up dismantling them [and disposing of the rest] improperly, could be damaging the environment,” he said during a morning radio programme.
“There could be heavy metals and chemicals in the components. In bad recycling practices, all valuable materials will be recovered, and the rest, the hazardous stuff, will be disposed of improperly, affecting the environment and the worker’s health.”
Under the scheme, producers and sellers are required to provide free and approved removal services for old and unwanted appliances to customers who buy new ones of the same type from them. The goods have to be taken to a recycler licensed to process and store e-waste.
Producers also have to pay a recycling levy of between HK$15 and HK$165 per item to the government every quarter – although both industry players and the government have conceded that the costs could eventually be transferred to the customer.
The Environmental Protection Department has employed a contractor, Alba IWS, to provide the free collection services and to run its new waste electronics processing plant in Ecopark, Tuen Mun. Most sellers have opted to use this service.
Doubts remain however over whether the contractor will be able to handle the sheer demand for collections from the estimated 3,000 appliance sellers in the city, and whether a single facility will be able to process that volume of e-waste.
Collection times will depend on Alba’s availability, meaning that customers may not always be able to have the old item picked up at the same time the new one is delivered and may have to wait for the services.
Sellers are allowed to hire their own collectors – and charge extra for this – while residents can turn to door-to-door private street collectors or even drop the appliances off at refuse depots personally.
Although he conceded that these approaches were all legal, the environment minister warned there was no guarantee that the e-waste would end up in the right places, let alone be dismantled and processed properly.
“This is not something that should be done. People should understand that all everyone has the responsibility for protecting the environment. In making decisions, think about whether you are causing any harm.”
On the issue of passing costs to consumers, Wong said this was for the market to decide but that the spirit of the scheme was for all stakeholders – producers, sellers and consumers – to bear the costs of environmental protection. He added that electronics prices frequently fluctuated anyway.
Green Earth executive director Edwin Lau Che-feng disagreed with his assessment, saying residents should bear some but not all responsibility in a producer responsibility scheme.
About 70,000 tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment waste is disposed of in Hong Kong annually. Of this amount, 80 per cent is shipped to regions such as Africa and Southeast Asia, while the rest is handled locally and dumped in landfills.
The government’s e-waste plant – staffed by about 60 workers – has an expected waste treatment capacity of about 30,000 tonnes a year.
Jacky Cheung Yiu-shing, founding president of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Recycling Association, which specialises in recovering computer parts, said the scheme was well-intended, but the government should allow more licensed players to enter the market to compete to offer better services. This would also prevent a citywide supply chain logjam if any of the plant’s machinery were to break down, he said.
“More people providing more services, especially environmental-related ones, can only raise cost-efficiency and service quality,” Cheung added, noting that the market for used computer parts was already a thriving industry and able to carry out proper recovery services.
Apart from Alba, there are only two other licensed handlers in Hong Kong, but unlike the contractor, they are not supported by government funding.
Under the second phase of the programme, set to begin at the end of the year, permits will also be required for the import and export of regulated e-waste.