Hong Kong must tackle the problem

These days, it is often cheaper and more convenient to buy a new computer than to upgrade an old one. According to the US National Safety Council, the average life span of a personal computer has shrunk from four or five years to two years. It is estimated that, in California alone, more than 6,000 computers become obsolete every day.

But where do the outmoded models go? Unfortunately, most of them are tossed out with the trash and subsequently end up in landfills.

Electronic waste — commonly known as “e-waste” — is a growing environmental problem on a global scale. The increasing volume of e-waste and its hazardous materials, including lead, mercury, cadmium and other toxic heavy metals, represents a contamination problem to water sources and toxic air emissions. If handled improperly, e-waste is a menace to both public health and the environment.

In the last few years, the impact of e-waste has been identified as one of the critical environmental issues facing society. Some countries, including Japan and the European Union (EU) countries, have already adopted progressive recycling laws to ameliorate the environmental impact of e-waste on their countries. The EU enacted directives in 2002 requiring manufacturers of electronic devices to take the responsibility-financial or otherwise-for the treatment, recovery and disposal of such product. The directive also requires the manufacturers to stop the use of hazardous materials in consumer electronics.

In stark contrast to these proactive measures, Hong Kong does not have comprehensive recycling legislation. The Waste Disposal Ordinance (WDO) only mandates that a permit issued by the Environmental Production Department (EPD) is required for the export and import of e-waste containing or contaminated by hazardous substances. Other hazards such as dust, noise, waste water and waste generated by e-waste recycling plants are also subject to control under the Air Pollution Control Ordinance, Noise Control Ordinance, Water Pollution Control Ordinance and a set of subsidiary regulations respectively.

Clearly, the above legislation does not require that the manufacturers share responsibility for proper management and recycling of e-waste. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government simply has not formulated a comprehensive policy on this issue. So it is not surprising that public awareness of the health and environmental threat posed by hazardous waste is virtually nonexistent in Hong Kong. Awareness of and access to recycling opportunities for e-waste are also limited.

To manage the problem of e-waste effectively, there is no single answer. Neither a piece of legislation nor a public awareness campaign alone is sufficient to combat the problem. But a recycling law or producer responsibility program would serve as a cornerstone for an e-waste management policy.

Safe recycling

At a minimum, such regulatory measures should require that all computer monitors, TV sets and other electronic devices containing hazardous material be clearly labeled for both users and treatment facilities, so that these products will be handled and recycled safely. Manufacturers need to share the cost of recycling and take responsibility for the treatment and recovery of their e-waste. This approach will inevitably increase costs and burden to manufacturers, but a statutory control is essential to motivate manufacturers to handle production in a more environmentally sound manner.

Apart from the regulatory option, initiatives to encourage change in society’s attitude towards e-waste and sustainable development are necessary. A significant change in behavior will take a number of years to be beneficial. Hence, a comprehensive campaign should be put in place to educate citizens in Hong Kong about recycling electrical equipment to prevent them from continuing the practice of simply dumping it in our ever-diminishing landfills. There must be investment in our recycling infrastructure for handling electronic equipment.

The Hong Kong media recently reported that an increasing amount of electronic waste has been transshipped to Hong Kong for processing, because mainland customs authorities have recently prohibited the import of e-waste. This imbalance has resulted in several locations in the HKSAR’s New Territories being used not only for the storage and processing of e-waste, but as lodging for illegal immigrant labor in conjunction with this practice. In light of this, the government should also step up its enforcement efforts to ensure that the operation of e-waste sites is in compliance with the relevant statutory requirements, and that no hazardous e-waste is illegally imported or exported to/from Hong Kong.

Finally, one thing that must not be overlooked is the protection given to the rights of workers in electronics recycling plants. The government should consider applying stringent occupational health and safety standards to manufacturing and recycling facilities, so as to reduce the risks of exposing workers to hazardous materials.

— Chung Kai Sin is Hong Kong’s Legislative Councillor for IT. Contact him at cksin@sinchungkai.org.hk

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