UN reports have estimated that the world currently has 44.7 metric tonnes of electronic waste, of which only 20% is recycled. Hong Kong recently opened its Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Treatment and Recycling Facility (WEEETRF), which addresses the proper treatment and disposal of this waste.
E-waste, also called WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment), comprises any discarded product or parts that requires electricity or batteries to run. This includes devices ranging from used washing machines to cameras, GPS systems, calculators, printers, air conditioners, and mobile phones.
An autonomous study conducted by the United Nations University has found that as of 2016, global E-waste was a total of 44.7 metric tonnes or 6.1 kg per person. The Oceania region was the highest generator of waste produced per inhabitant (17.3/person). 44.7 metric tonnes is the equivalent of almost 4,500 Eiffel towers. In the Global E-Waste Monitor Report of 2017, analysts projected that by 2021, this amount will have increased to 52.2 metric tonnes.
Only 20% of all E-Waste produced globally is collected and recycled. Out of the 80% remaining, 76% is unaccounted for, most probably dumped in landfills, traded, or taken apart in unsafe conditions. Electronic waste often contains harmful elements such as cadmium, lead, beryllium, and other heavy metals harmful both to the environment and the people handling them.
The transnational movement of E-Waste is therefore an issue of concern and comes under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. This treaty was signed to prevent the transfer of toxic waste between countries, particularly from developed to less developed countries.
However, a number of countries including the United States are not signatories of the Convention. According to the Basel Action Network, approximately 80% of obsolete equipment from the United States is sent to developing countries in Asia. Nigeria is a major recipient of E-Waste from the EU; other developing countries with cheap labour and no regulations such as Ghana and Cambodia are also recipients of global E-Waste. These countries have little or no means for safe handling and disposal of waste.
Asia is the region that produces the largest amount of E-Waste. According to the report, the generation of E-Waste in the region has risen by 63% in the past five years. However, only 67 countries in the world, and 17% of countries in South-East Asia have legislation on its handling. India, adopted E-Waste legislation in 2016.
Hong Kong’s new $54 million recycling plant for electronic waste is the city’s acknowledgement of their growing problem with waste disposal. The project was a joint venture between Alba and Integrated Waste Solutions Group and was funded by the government. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Treatment and Recycling Facility (WEEETRF) is expected to eventually treat all 70,000 tonnes of E-Waste produced by the city that is currently exported for disposal.
Located at EcoPark, the facility will recycle approximately 85% of the material, ensure the proper disposal of hazardous elements, and send small amounts to landfills. It is also expected to address the networks of informal workers that currently exist in the city.
Since China’s crackdown on recycling imported waste, plastic paper in particular, Hong Kong has seen an influx of material that would have once headed to China. Informal networks of scrap collectors currently work in unsafe conditions to sort electronic and other types of waste. These workers are not equipped to deal with toxic chemicals and other safety hazards. While workers are dependent on this work for sustenance, executive director of the Basel Action Network Jim Puckett told the Financial Times, “Governments and manufacturers have a responsibility to stop this activity and pay the full cost of proper disposal.”
The creation of WEETRF is also a Part of Hong Kong’s Producer Responsibility Scheme, where under the “Polluter Pays” principle, organisations are held responsible for the waste they generate.
Commentators have observed that besides being environmentally responsible, the Hong Kong government may be tapping into a hugely unexplored source of revenue. The United Nations has estimated that approximately $65 billion of valuable elements such as gold and platinum that is present in these gadgets is discarded. This is, as they point out, “more than the 2016 GDP of most countries in the world.” Additionally, the report emphasises, the potential for business and the creation of jobs is huge.
Our assessment is that the issue of electronic waste is an outcome of the use-and-throw culture prevalent today. As accessibility to electronic products continues to grow in developing countries such as India, it will become increasingly essential to set up formal systems for the disposal of electronic waste. We believe that the Hong Kong government’s attempt to institutionalise E-Waste disposal is a step in the right direction. At a global level, tighter restrictions need to be placed on the shipping of such waste. However, electronic waste presents not only a problem but also an economic opportunity to obtain raw materials and create jobs, and Hong Kong has invested in this opportunity.