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July 2nd, 2016:

Turn back the e-waste tide: pressure to stop flood of toxic imports from US to Hong Kong

Dump sites in the New Territories are still operating, months after campaigners handed list of offenders to the Environmental Protection Department

Environmental officials in Hong Kong and the United States are coming under increasing pressure to stem a growing tide of potentially lethal electronic waste entering the city amid fears it could replace Guangdong province as the dumping ground of choice for the global digital economy.

Months after campaigners against electronic waste handed the Environmental Protection Department a list of dump sites in the New Territories, the Sunday Morning Post has discovered that most of them are still operating.

The 10 sites were identified by the US environmental watchdog Basel Action Network in May after hazardous materials were tracked using special GPS satellite trackers planted in shipping containers leaving the US.

Clustered in Yuen Long – some of them close to livestock and arable farming – the dump sites, which also serve as wrecking and salvaging yards for computer parts, LCD monitors and an assortment of potentially hazardous material, were visited by the Post late last month


We found evidence to corroborate the network’s contention that much of the material had been imported from the US – the world’s biggest exporter of electronic waste.

A spokesman for the EPD said: “We are in touch with the US Environmental Protection Agency and the indications are that the agency and other US federal agencies are concerned about the flows of used electronics from the United States to countries that have laws restricting their imports.

“The department has just begun exchanging information with the US authorities on how to step up the collaboration on controlling illegal transboundary movement of waste between Hong Kong and the US.”

The move follows a two-year investigation by the network which found that 37 out of 65 items had been exported from the US. Another eight were tracked to mainland China.

The research suggests a significant geographical shift in the movement of electronic waste – the bulk of which a decade ago would end up on the mainland.

Over the last year, the mainland has stepped up controls preventing e-waste from entering via the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, such that legislators, environmental activists and concern groups suspect that the materials are now stuck in Hong Kong.

A spokesman for the EPD said when they received the information from the network in May they began an investigation. “Even if the sites are processing non-hazardous waste, such as printed circuit boards, if the process causes pollution to the environment, the department will also take action in accordance with the law,” he said.


But when the Post visited the sites, unprotected workers – some with cigarettes in their mouths – were seen dismantling materials in three of the sites using substandard and environmentally hazardous recycling methods that could expose them and their neighbourhood to the toxic substances inside the products, including mercury, carbon black (toner powders), lead and brominated flame retardants.

“In the brown fields in the New Territories, everything is out of control,” said district councillor Paul Zimmerman who described the area close to the Shenzhen border as a hotbed of smuggling activity and an open market for commodities stripped from imported electronic materials.

“This kind of activity is happening on a grand scale and its causing mayhem to the area,” he said.

Key identifiers suggested that much of what was being processed there had been imported from the US, including US plugs lying among the debris, and labels indicating the items were American.

A shipping container parked outside was traced back to originating from Florida in the US using an online shipping database.

The import of hazardous electronic waste into Hong Kong is illegal under the Basel Convention, which regulates the flow of hazardous materials across international boundaries. Both Hong Kong and mainland China are signatories, but the US has not ratified the convention,

Hong Kong’s legal definition of “hazardous” waste is uniquely lax, providing loopholes in legislation that make the its free-wheeling container port a popular destination for the products.

“E-waste is classified into two categories under the Basel Convention – non-hazardous e-waste and hazardous e-waste,” an EPD spokesperson said. “Non-hazardous e-waste includes main computer units, computer hard disks, other component parts inside a computer, printed circuit boards, printers and servers etc.”

Network director Jim Puckett estimates around 50 to 100 containers arrive each day containing e-waste and that 90 per cent of the material found at dumps in the New Territories are US exports.

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Revealed: the toxic trail of e-waste that leads from the US to Hong Kong

SCMP study of 10 dumping sites shows how shipments from the world’s biggest producer of electronic garbage are despoiling the New Territories and raising serious health and safety issues

The acrid stench of overheating plastic fills the air as a grime-covered worker perched on a bench surrounded by old printers nonchalantly tosses a cigarette to the ground.

It’s dirty work disembowelling the detritus of the digital economy.

Welcome to the New Territories district of Yuen Long, which if environmental campaigners are to be believed, threatens to become ground-zero for the world’s electronic waste.

In recent years a cluster of legally questionable work sites have sprung up to store and dismantle the disgorged contents of the growing number of shipping containers arriving in Hong Kong from the planet’s biggest producer of e-waste – the United States.


Monitors pile up, circuit boards are separated from smartphone cases and LCD screens are smashed to smithereens in scenes that are more Mad Max than Silicon Valley.

In partnership with a Seattle-based environmental group that has monitored the flow of hazardous electronic waste out of the US for two decades, the Sunday Morning Post visited 10 such sites identified by the group using tracking devices planted inside waste products.

The Basel Action Network (BAN) says Hong Kong’s traditional role as a transshipment point for mainland-bound e-waste is changing – bringing danger to not only the health of the ¬often undocumented workers who break down the technology but the wider environment.


Using coordinates passed on by the network, the Post visited sites pinpointed by hidden GPS trackers as the destination of US digital detritus. Seven of the 10 sites – all details of which have been handed to the Environmental Protection Department – were storing electronic waste.

Three were hives of stripping-down activity by workers, few if any of whom were wearing protective clothing.

At one site, which the Post was able to enter in the wake of a delivery vehicle, we found stacks of disembowelled monitor cases and computer parts. At least one of the discarded units carried a US postage label.


A man in a sun hat told us “we dismantle things”. When pressed on what these “things” were, he denied that they were computer parts. “We’re very clean,” he insisted, before asking us to leave.

Close to the entrance of another site within plain view of a Post drone camera were stacks of computer cases. Glass, rubbish, circuit boards and batteries could be seen among the gravel. A faint sound of drilling was audible towards the other side of the site, about half the size of a soccer pitch.

A few metres away, under tarpaulin, four workers pulling machines apart with electric screwdrivers could be seen tossing remnants into plastic bags. No one was wearing protective gear.

There were bags of circuit boards and copper wiring nearby, alongside piles of old laptops, some with floppy discs inside. Printers and scanners were also visible. An appliance marked with the logo of US home surveillance and entertainment technology manufacturer Channel Vision was found on the ground, alongside a US plug.


“These are sizeable junkyards, and that’s a real concern ” said Dr Anna Leung Oi-wah, a biologist at Hong Kong Baptist University who specialises in the health and environmental impact of electronic waste.

Leung visited the same sites earlier this year with BAN director Jim Puckett, who has been campaigning to stop the flow of hazardous waste from developed countries to the developing world for 20 years.

There are also concerns about stuff getting dropped on the floor, or heavy metals getting into the water supply. And what about children playing nearby?

Dr Anna Leung Oi-wah, Baptist University

“Workers can get exposed to mercury in cathode ray tubes, lead is found in circuit boards. If they’re not wearing protective equipment they’ll be breathing in fumes,” she said.

“There are also concerns about stuff getting dropped on the floor, or heavy metals getting into the water supply. And what about children playing nearby?”

Of the 10 sites visited, two were deserted and empty, however remnants of e-waste, including circuit boards and fragments of LCD screens, lay alongside rusty nails.

At one abandoned site broken LCD lamps – from which harmful mercury can leak – were strewn alongside an assortment of discarded computer parts.

Surrounding these sites were rows of shipping containers, one of which with the help of BAN the Post tracked back to South Beach in Florida, backing the network’s claim that as much as 90 per cent of what can be found at these work sites are US exports.

One key fear expressed by environmentalists is the seepage of toxic waste into the ground, contaminating the food chain. A pig farm sat next to one site, a field of crops by another.

In 2003 Leung and Puckett visited the Guiyi cluster of villages in Guangdong province, which had earned the dubious title of becoming the biggest electronic waste dump site in China – and possibly the world.

They saw “mom and pop” workshops dismantling computers and melting down plastic in large containers using what they described as primitive techniques, exposing workers to toxic materials and contaminating the soil and water. Footage of the site shows blackened streams, and soil samples were found to be contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants.

The extent of operations at the Guiyi site generated intense pressure from activists and helped trigger a response from the mainland authorities who tightened controls on the importation of electronic waste.

The crackdown made it much harder for e-waste to transit Hong Kong into mainland China and Puckett’s fear now is that – in part due to the city’s historic commitment to free trade – Hong Kong is becoming the dump of choice for e-waste exporters.

A shrinking market and dwindling returns on old electronic components – which is driving an e-waste export boom – will only make matters worse, according to Puckett.

In addition, the value of waste has slumped because fewer precious metals are used to make products.

Hong Kong district councillor Paul Zimmerman says Yuen Long is a centre for e-waste dumping, dismantling, as well a smuggling hotbed for electronic and other used goods due to its proximity to the Shenzhen border. The activity has sparked fears over fire safety and the dangers of large trucks plying their trade on unsuitable rural roads.


While the importation of hazardous waste to Hong Kong is illegal under the Basel Convention, to which it is a signatory, the city’s definition of what constitutes “hazardous” is allowing potentially dangerous waste to enter, Puckett said.

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Department said: “Non-hazardous e-waste includes main computer units, computer hard disks, other component parts inside a computer, printed circuit boards, printers and servers.”

She added that the sites visited by the Post were under investigation.

The US is the world’s largest producer of electronic waste – thought to generate 3.14 million tonnes of e-waste each year, according to the country’s ¬Environmental Protection ¬Agency.

Hong Kong officials at the EPD have expressed their concerns to the US government.

A spokesman for the US agency said: “We are in communication with Hong Kong’s environmental protection department on the issue of electronic waste management.”

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The last straw: brothers battle to rid Hong Kong of plastic drinking straws which pollute city’s waters

Campaigner Gary Stokes and his brother are seeking to reduce plastic waste, in particular in waters surrounding Hong Kong

Environmentalists are on a mission to rid Hong Kong of plastic drinking straws, concerned about the risk posed to marine life after being dumped in surrounding waters.

Gary Stokes, director of Sea Shepherd Asia, and his brother Andy, a graphic designer, are attempting to persuade the city’s bars and restaurants to replace their plastic straws with paper ones.

The pair are selling bright green biodegradable paper straws, which cost four times as much as the plastic variety, to businesses across Hong Kong for no personal profit.

They are also urging consumers to “just say no” to straws when they do not need one. So far the initiative has saved more than 80,000 plastic straws, with support from Hemingway’s in Discovery Bay, Mavericks in Pui O and Why 50 in Sheung Wan.

Gary Stokes said he ultimately hoped to attract corporate sponsors for the campaign, named “The Last Straw”, as well as encouraging a major food outlet such as McDonald’s to sign up.

“Hong Kong is fast-paced and many people have a disposable lifestyle,” he said. “I spend a lot of time on the water and I see the trash. Most of it is plastic. You use a plastic straw for about two minutes and it will be around for 150 years,” said Stokes.

The brothers launched their initiative on World Oceans Day on June 8 in a bid to help protect the city’s waters.

Similar projects have been launched overseas but theirs is thought to be the first major initiative of its kind in Hong Kong.

Plastic is a major contributor to Hong Kong’s landfills, which are expected to reach capacity by 2020. Between 1,200 and 2,000 tonnes of plastic waste are discarded in Hong Kong every day, according to estimates, although there are currently no estimates for the number of discarded straws.

In the US, which has a population about 45 times the size of Hong Kong’s, 500 million plastic straws are used every day.

When they are dumped in the ocean, plastic straws break down into tiny plastic particles and absorb toxins from the water. These particles are often ingested by fish, which
humans then eat.

Plastic straws also wash up on Hong Kong’s beaches, putting land mammals at risk. In recent years, there have been cases of sea turtles getting straws lodged in their nostrils, which often have to be removed with pliers.

Stokes, who campaigns on a wide variety of environmental issues, said he chose to address the issue of plastic straws because they cause significant damage and phasing them out would be “achievable”.

“People want to do the right thing and are prepared to do it, but it is just sometimes they are too busy or they do not know how to,” he said. “They just have to have it delivered to them or organised, they need someone to be the catalyst.

“Humans in general are selfish. They think; ‘how is it going to affect me?’ If everyone has the same mentality, then it will always carry on. We wanted to do straws first because it is more achievable.”

Johan Harmide, owner of Why 50 cafe, said he decided to support the scheme after witnessing the amount of waste on Hong Kong’s beaches for himself while living in
Discovery Bay.

He said he initially offered people the choice between paper or plastic straws, and customers tended to be split 50/50, but he eventually removed all plastic straws and
received positive feedback.

“I am very concerned about the environment here – it is disgusting on the beaches, it is terrible,” he said. “When Gary suggested it, I said right away that I was in. It is a perfect fit for us. I am trying to help inform the people of Hong Kong. We have beautiful beaches but you always find rubbish on them.”

Harmide said he agreed with Stokes’ philosophy that Hongkongers want to support the environment, but the fast-paced nature of city life means they do not always make environmentally friendly choices.

“We are just making the choice a bit easier,” he said. “Two people out of 10 ask why their straw is going a bit mushy, and then when we tell them they just say ‘ah ok’,” he said.

“It’s all good – the drink is gone in 30 minutes anyway.”

Plastic has previously been revealed as the most common material to wash up on Hong Kong’s beaches.

In a study by the Green Council in 2014, Chinese branded rubbish made up a third of the waste, suggesting items had floated over to Hong Kong from the mainland.

Stokes said he was encouraged by the number of Hong Kong businesses signing up to his scheme.

“Plastic is a big problem in the ocean,” he said. “We have one of the worst conservation waste rates per capita. We are certainly up there, which is why landfills are full. We want to provide the solution so people do not have the wiggle room to avoid it. So far the response has been amazing.”

The campaign comes after a group of expatriate residents called on Hong Kong’s supermarket chains to reduce the amount of plastic used for fruit and vegetables.

The Environmental Protection Department said at the time that there was a “strong community consensus” on food hygiene, so a drive to reduce excessive packaging was still on a voluntary basis.

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