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Hong Kong environmental issues

Electronic appliances abandoned by Hong Kong departments and public bodies auctioned to public despite official scheme, Post finds

Green groups fear allowing individual buyers instead of licensed recyclers to dismantle the waste could cause environmental problems

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2018, 5:46pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 September, 2018, 11:00pm

Abandoned electronic appliances from Hong Kong government departments and public bodies have been auctioned to the public, despite an official scheme requiring sellers and users to send them to licensed recyclers, a Post investigation has found.

The revelation sparked criticism from green groups who argued such inconsistency could cause environmental damage as individual buyers might dismantle the items improperly.

Since 2003, auctions have been held by the Government Logistics Department (GLD) twice a month to sell confiscated items, unclaimed goods and surplus stores considered to have some resaleable value.

The Post reviewed data from three auctions since last month and found 2,179 electronic appliances that fall under the Producer Responsibility Scheme were put up for auction from 13 government departments or public bodies.

In the scheme, which came into effect on August 1, sellers are required to provide free removal services for old and unwanted appliances to customers who buy new products of the same type.

This is to ensure that the appliances – air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, computers, printers, scanners and monitors – are all taken to a recycler licensed to process and store them.

While electronic appliances accounted for only 1.9 per cent of all 115,222 auction items, some 96 per cent of such equipment ended up being sold to public bidders.

Among the appliances, about 84 per cent were iPads and tablet computers confiscated by the customs and excise department and labelled “may be unserviceable, may not function properly or may be damaged”.

During a Post visit to a public hospital that stored old appliances put up for auction, some discarded computers and monitors were manufactured almost a decade ago.

A hospital employee who spoke on condition of anonymity said the people who came to inspect the goods were mostly scrap collectors or recyclers.

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“What is one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” he said. “We don’t think it’s of any value to us, but they said they could earn money by salvaging their useful parts and selling them to exporters, or by reassembling them.”

George Lo, a regular bidder at one of the auctions, said he bought HK$1,000 (US$127) worth of old electronic appliances, mainly abandoned refrigerators and washing machines from public housing estates.

“I usually see if they can be fixed and sell them to low-income families. But it’s really a gamble. Sometimes half of the batch can’t be fixed and just have to be thrown away,” said Lo, who runs a second-hand shop in Yuen Long.

Lo now plans to let a government contractor and recycler pick up the items.

Another regular bidder, Lam Kim-fai, who usually buys anything from cars to machine parts in boats, which do not fall under the scheme, said he exports them to developing countries in Africa and Southeast Asia.

“The amount of goods that are auctioned isn’t stable every month, but government departments have to throw things out eventually, so we just keep buying and storing them in containers until they can be shipped out,” Lam said.

Edwin Lau Che-feng, executive director of The Green Earth, said auctioning e-waste was “not a very ideal arrangement”.

“If it ends up in the hands of recyclers who don’t have processing facilities that are up to standard, it could be potentially hazardous to the environment if treated improperly,” Lau said.

About 70,000 tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment waste are disposed of annually in Hong Kong. Of this amount, 80 per cent is shipped overseas to Africa or Southeast Asia, while the rest is dumped locally in landfills.

Greenpeace campaigner Andy Chu Kong said the government’s inconsistency reflected “an obvious lack of communication between departments”.

“If the government implements a new policy, it should take the lead in making sure the actions of all its departments are in line with one another,” Chu said. “It doesn’t seem to be aligned in this case.”

If the government implements a new policy, it should take the lead in making sure the actions of all its departments are in line with one another
Andy Chu Kong, Greenpeace

A joint reply from the GLD and the Environment Bureau said the scheme had been implemented in phases.

The officials noted they planned to allow only eligible licensed recyclers to participate in the auction of e-waste, but not until December 31.

That is when new laws relating to e-waste disposal, and import and export permits, would come into effect in Hong Kong.

However, both Lau and Chu believed there was no need to wait until the end of the year to restrict bidding on the appliances to licensed recyclers. The government has already approved e-waste disposal licences for four companies.

“The earlier they set this condition, the earlier any chance of secondary environmental pollution could be reduced,” Lau said.

Such an initiative would give recyclers more incentive to apply for licenses, he added.

Of the 13 departments and bodies, only the Hospital Authority said it had decided not to put regulated electronic equipment up for auction after August 1.

In the event goods cannot be auctioned after several attempts, the GLD would normally advise departments to find a recycler, the authority said last month. And if no recycler could be found, they could dump it instead.

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Lau said such advice deviated from the Environment Bureau’s objective in the scheme. He suggested that licensed recyclers be the government’s first and only choice to dispose of such items.

It was not until a follow-up reply on September 5 that officials said bureaus and departments had been advised to consider using licensed recyclers for collection and treatment services when applicable situations arose.