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E-Waste in Hong Kong: A Hidden Graveyard of Technology

May 01, 2018
topic:Air Pollution
tags:#e-waste, #toxic chemicals, #obsolete, #recycled, #Hong Kong, #Asia, #EPD (Environmental Protection Department)
located:United Kingdom, Hong Kong
Comfort, ease, speed, connectivity, progress. Without a doubt, technological devices have changed modern living dramatically. But what happens when they die, become obsolete, turn into waste?

By Markella Koniordou & Julia Laird

E-waste, a.k.a. electronic and electrical waste, is classified as hazardous (UK policy). Containing a range of heavily toxic chemicals, e-waste must not end up on streets, gardens or landfills. To prevent the release of chemicals into water, soil and air, electronic waste must undergo formal processing within controlled settings and be recycled to allow the recovery of precious, resource-limited materials to be re-used.

That’s not what happens to most of it. The truly unprecedented rise in e-waste (rooted in our seemingly insatiable appetite for cutting-edge technology, designed neither to last nor be recycled) has been matched with unregulated or illegal networks that offer clandestine ways to deal with it. Stretching far beyond local or national borders and often hidden behind the shiny reflection on a brand new screen, issues surrounding e-waste now affect every corner of the world: from every phone ring, TV turned on, or a light switch simply flicked on or off.

Over the past 10-15 years, Asia has become the fastest-growing consumer and generator of e-waste worldwide. Hong Kong (or the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China) with a total population of 7.3 million people, was estimated in 2014 to generate around 156,000 tonnes per year, scoring the highest in e-waste generation per person, at per capita (vs. 15.6 kg in Europe and an average of 3.7 kg in all of Asia). The otherwise remarkable ports of Hong Kong, make it also a hotspot for unregulated e-waste import-export activity. Moving e-waste would normally involve a series of permits and hefty fees, in order to adhere to the Basel Convention, which bans the transboundary movement of hazardous waste. In 2016 alone, however, Hong Kong was revealed to be the top destination for illegal dumping of e-waste from the US.

For the residents of Hong Kong, the staple method for discarding old devices is night-time collection from the streets of Sham Shui Po district at the heart of Kowloon. After 10 pm at night, groups of people are found pushing trolleys filled with old devices; and electronic repair shops begin loading vans and trucks with broken refrigerators, computer monitors and TVs. The onward route of those trucks is unclear – e-waste streams are far from straight-forward.

The most well-documented e-waste destinations in Asia in recent years have been rural towns, such as in Guiyu, in Guangdong province in Southern China. The processing and recovery of precious materials (metals like copper and gold) take place in ‘informal’ ways, meaning manual dismantling, burning or acid bleaching, all of which expose workers and the environment to poisonous chemical cocktails. Recent coverage, particularly on the impacts of such informal e-waste recycling processes to health, has led to stricter regulations by the Chinese for the protection of e-waste communities; ultimately however also diverting e-waste to other destinations.

The immense and ever-increasing quantity of e-waste, coupled with the growing financial incentive to recover precious materials from it, has meant that Hong Kong has been on the look-out for new discarding destinations. Processing Hong Kong’s e-waste is now beginning to take place in newly industrialised neighbourhoods, like San Tin or Yuen Long in the New Territories, near the Hong Kong-Chinese border (confirmed by other reports and people we spoke to in HK). Unlike other sites of informal e-waste processing elsewhere in the world – such as the Agbogbloshie scrap site in Accra, Ghana, which is large, visible and known to the wider community – processing here takes place behind tall walls in small isolated hotspots of activity. They are quick to open and quicker to disappear, making monitoring by local authorities ever more challenging. After processing, if the remaining waste (still considered hazardous) doesn’t end up dumped in a field, it is likely to reach one of Hong Kong’s vast landfill sites, which are nearly already full. Alternatively, e-waste might continue on a journey of export to another country (such as India, Cambodia and Vietnam, according to people we spoke to in HK), for dumping or processing.

The EPD (Environmental Protection Department), Hong Kong’s governing body, is recognising the scale of the problem and taking steps to address the overwhelming amounts of e-waste. To start with, it has been placing signposts prohibiting dumping and engaging more in discussions about tech manufacturers’ or suppliers’ responsibilities. Then, in August 2016, the EPD also announced the succession of a previous small scheme (implemented by St James's Settlement private company) by a new, more expansive e-waste recycling scheme, implemented by Alba Integrated Waste Solutions (Hong Kong) Limited. The company offers household collection services for old or non-working electronics; attempting to re-appropriate older technology as much as possible. Obsolete devices are stored until they can be transported to be safely processed and recycled at a new ‘state-of-the-art’ facility about to open in the Tuen-Mun area of Hong Kong, near other industrial eco-parks.

Though the new scheme is promising and adopting an attitude of ecological awareness is a step forward, additional action is essential. Apart from its opening date which is repeatedly being postponed, this new facility will only be able to process 30,000 tonnes of e-waste a year, out of the 70,000 tonnes the EPD alone reports to generate just domestically. Imported waste will also add to this figure. In addition, eight types of devices (A/C, washing machine, refrigerator, TV, computer, monitor, printer, and scanner) are to be processed, but the remaining myriad of other devices (including mobile phones) seem still destined for landfills or an unregulated route. Moreover, this is only tackling domestic e-waste, not even touching upon unregulated pathways, where international pressure and enforcement against the illegal trade in waste is needed.

If we do not address the rising problems with e-waste, then we stand little chance to prevent further harm to our planet’s ecosystem. As consumers, we have a strong role to play by holding ourselves accountable (not in wilful blindness or stagnated in a self-flagellating place of ignorance, but positively taking part) – we can influence not only local and national demand for transparency in recycling, but can curb consumption, influence the design of technology (like buying a fairphone) and discard properly. We need to ask ourselves: comfort, ease, speed, connectivity, progress – but at what cost?

The article was first published on 

United Kingdom Hong Kong
Embed from Getty Images
Containing a range of heavily toxic chemicals, e-waste must not end up on streets, gardens or landfills.
Embed from Getty Images
The truly unprecedented rise in e-waste has been matched with unregulated or illegal networks that offer clandestine ways to deal with it.
Embed from Getty Images
Hong Kong with a total population of 7.3 million people, was estimated in 2014 to generate around 156,000 tonnes per year, scoring the highest in e-waste generation per person, at 21 kg.
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