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Hong Kong environmental issues

Higher prices for electronic appliances on the cards, as Hong Kong rolls out recycling and disposal plan to combat dumping

Sellers must now provide free, government-approved removal services for old and unwanted appliances to customers who buy new products of the same type

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2018, 9:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2018, 12:25pm

A scheme requiring producers of some electronic appliances to pay for their recycling and waste disposal came into effect in Hong Kong on Wednesday, but retailers warned it would only be a matter of time before the added costs were passed on to customers.

Under the official “Producer Responsibility Scheme”, sellers are required to provide free, government-approved removal services for old and unwanted appliances to customers who buy new products of the same type.

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Air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, computers, printers, scanners and monitors will have to be taken to a recycler licensed to process and store them.

Producers also have to pay a recycling levy of between HK$15 and HK$165 per item to the government every quarter.

Both industry players and the government have conceded that the extra costs could eventually be transferred to the customer.

Environment secretary Wong Kam-sing on Wednesday acknowledged that these were commercial decisions, but brushed off concerns that the new recycling charges producers must pay would be the only factor in price changes. Market competition would also prevent price gouging, he said.

“Prices may reflect many factors in business like labour, rent and utilities … we cannot generalise,” Wong said. “Some sellers say the costs will not affect them at all.”

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Retail Management Association chairman Thomson Cheng Wai-hung said he had heard from some consumers of noticeable price increases for some appliances, but not all retailers would raise prices to cover the costs.

“It depends on whether the consumers can afford it. I cannot see any obvious trend at the moment,” he said.

Home appliance seller Wong Ming-cheong, owner of OK Shop in Kowloon City, saw it as a logistical nightmare. Someone would have to bear the added costs and it would not be businesses, he said.

While his shelf prices would stay the same, Wong said, he would add the recycling surcharges onto customers’ receipts. “The customers do not expect me to talk to them for a long period of time just to clearly explain the entire process,” he said. “They will definitely feel irritated.”

Appliance saleswoman Ah Yong, from another electronic appliance store in Kowloon City, said her shop had no plans to raise prices yet, but would not rule it out in future. “If suppliers need to increase prices, so do we,” she said.

Contractor Alba IWS has been contracted by the government to provide free collection services and run its new waste electronics recycling plant in Tuen Mun. Most sellers have opted to use this service.

But doubts remain as to whether the contractor will be able to handle all of the city’s e-waste alone, and whether a single facility will be able to process that volume of waste.

About 70,000 tonnes of e-waste is disposed of in Hong Kong annually, most of which is exported, while the rest is handled locally and dumped in landfills.

Alba director Nigel Mattravers said the plant was well positioned to take in 30,000 tonnes of electronic waste per year and, if anything, needed “more material, not less” right now.

“I’ve visited four collection centres today and all is well,” he told the Post on Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve been raising all levels of capacity. So far so good.”

He expected some teething problems in the initial stages and said the firm had received plenty of queries from retailers on Wednesday, mostly regarding the use of their new online web portal, which enables coordination of delivery and collection times.

Late on Wednesday night, the environment minister said operations on the first official day of the scheme had been “generally smooth”.

“We appreciate that during the early stage of implementation, it may take time for members of the public and the trade to get accustomed,” Wong said, adding that the government would work closely with the industry to see where there was room for improvement.

He added that if any non-compliance on the part of the sellers or their staff was identified, such as providing misleading information to consumers about the time required for arranging the statutory removal service, the Environmental Protection Department would investigate and take enforcement action.

Some consumers expressed concern over costs. Lee Hin-leung, 43, feared the scheme would “legitimise price inflation” as it would be difficult to break down the cost to the consumer of what had led to the increase.

“I work as a salesperson, too, so I know it is impossible for retailers to totally not pass on some cost to consumers,” Lee said.

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Clerk Flora Lam, 26, said the idea of the scheme was good, but suggested more should be done to make it viable for consumers.

She said she would be more than willing to pay extra for people to dispose of her old electronic appliances faster.

“I’ve read that [Alba] will take at least three working days before they can collect the old appliances,” she said. “Knowing that flats in Hong Kong are so tiny, does the government expect residents to put, for example, an extra washing machine inside their home for days?”

Sellers are allowed to hire their own collectors – and charge extra for it – while residents can turn to door-to-door private street collectors or even drop the appliances off at refuse depots personally.

Wong Kam-sing conceded that these approaches were all legal but he warned there was no guarantee that the e-waste would end up in the right places and be dismantled and processed properly.

Jacky Cheung Yiu-shing, founding president of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Recycling Association, which specialises in recovering computer parts, said the government should allow more licensed entities to enter the market to compete to offer better 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.

Additional reporting by Kanis Leung

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