Yesterday, I had dinner at a Cantonese restaurant and while waiting for food to be served, I picked up an English newspaper, The Sunday Morning Post. After flipping through the first several pages, I stumbled across an article on electronic waste. I wanted to share this everyone here:
Potentially hazardous electronic waste is being exported to the mainland by operators of waste dumps in the New Territories just months after Beijing implemented a ban.
The mainlandâ€™s law was passed in 2008 but it has taken several years to implement. Despite the delay, the Hong Kong government has yet to figure out a sustainable approach to managing its own electronic waste.
A Sunday Morning Post investigation discovered at least two sites in Ping Che where workers confirmed that the waste they were working on which contains potentially hazardous substance like lead and mercury was headed for the mainland.
The Hong Kong government insists the waste is not hazardous but its own documentation lists some of the material at the site as dangerous to the environment and people.
A worker at a large open-air site in Ping Che also confirmed the waste, mainly computer monitors and television sets, was not from Hong Kong and had been imported, mainly from America, before being exported to the mainland.
â€œIt goes to the mainland. Of course, they say they wonâ€™t take it but we find a way to get it there. The boss knows the routes. Of course, he knows.â€ The employee said.
The employee, who was driving a forklift, said the owner was from the mainland and that the business did not have a name.
Parked outside the gate was a shipping container which is believed to have brought in a new shipment of electronic waste.
At another Ping Che site, eight workers were dismantling a range of electronic waste when the Post visited the Friday. They said the business had been in operation for a â€œlong timeâ€. However, the government said that as recently as last month the site was still vacant.
The unpaved site, about 3,000 square feet, had no shelter from the elements; workers labored under beach umbrellas or in the shade of a nearby tree. The ground was littered with broken glass, plastic, and casings.
The government said it inspected the site this month and found â€œno violation of environmental law requirementsâ€ and observed â€œsome simple dismantling operationsâ€.
The Environmental Protection Department said that non-hazardous materials can be exported without a permit.
â€œRecyclable waste to be imported into the mainland shall meet the requirement of the mainland authorities and quality control,â€ a department spokesman said.
But during the Post visit to one of the Ping Che sites last week, workers were seen handling a range of products that have been identified by an official government document as potentially hazardous. These included printers and scanners which a consultation document released by the Environment Bureau last January clearly states contains parts and components that have toxic substances that can harm humans.
At the Ping Che site, the parts were collected into several large calico bags, filled to the brim with circuit boards, exposed wiring, motor drivers and other internal parts of printers, fax machines and other used office equipment.
The consultation document, which was used by the government as part of a proposal to introduce a â€œpolluter paysâ€ scheme, also detailed the hazardous material in televisions and monitors. These include lead, which can cause cognitive defects in children, and mercury, which can damage the respiratory and digestive system and harm living organisms and the food chain.
While the EPD insisted that the work being carried out at these sites was legitimate and not harmful to the environment or humans, they were unable to state how this assessment was made. A department spokeswoman said that there was no official documentation defining hazardous and non-hazardous electronic waste that staff could use to assess electronic waste found at the sites in the New Territories. Rather, it was a matter of staff simply having the information as part of their job skills.
Under the waste disposal ordinance, hazardous materials are â€œnot suitable for submission to a reprocessing, recycling or recovery operation or for reuseâ€.
Mercury (in printer circuit boards), lead (in computer circuit boards) and cathode-ray tubes (in televisions and computer monitors) are stipulated as hazardous. PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, one of the most commonly used plastics, was defined as non-hazardous but Green Peace has claimed for years that recycling this material can release harmful dioxins as a by-product.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong continues to import large amounts electronic waste for processing. It does not keep details of where the non-hazardous waste is sent, referring only to the export destinations as â€œother plastic in the Asia-Pacific Regionâ€ and developing countriesâ€.
It does, however, collect details of where hazardous waste is sent. In 2010, for example, almost 300 tons of used batteries, worth about HK4000 a ton, were sent to South Korea. The government has also intercepted illegal shipments of hazardous electronic waste, with most coming from the US. Last year, this source accounted for 25 illegal shipments bringing in a total of 558 tons.
Each year, Hong Kong generates more than 70,000 tons of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) with the figure increasing two percent annually.
The Environmental Protection Department will not disclose the exact locations of the 120 open-air e-waste storage sites in the New Territories, and says none has violated any laws.
A spokesman said the sites were mainly in rural areas of North District and Yuen Long, including Ta Kwu Leng, Hung Lung Hang and Ha Tsuen.
â€œMany sites are temporary in nature with transient business operations to suit market needs,â€ he said, adding that the nature of operations could change from time to time. â€œSome of them also engage in bailing and simple dismantling operations that involve no processing of chemicals or other hazardous substances.â€
Last year the department received 24 complaints about 11 of these sites â€œconcerning mainly potential pollution nuisancesâ€, the spokesman said.
â€œWhile our site inspections did not find any violation of environmental law requirements, we reminded the operators of the environmental law requirements in respect of control of dust emissions, noise, waste disposal and wastewater discharges,â€ he said.
â€œWhen staff revisited the sites, some had improved and other had become vacant,â€ he said.
Environment Secretary Edward Yau Tang-wah refused to answer questions about the sites identified by the Post last Sunday as having questionable work practices.
Theresa Chiu from the secretaryâ€™s office did not provide response to questions on whether Yau had raised concerns about the sites, why the government had fallen behind schedule starting a â€œpolluter paysâ€ scheme for e-waste or if further investigations would be carried out on the potential dangers posed by open-air e-waste sites.
Article is written by Lana Lam of the Sunday Morning Post.