Global Observer

E-waste collectors fight to stake claim in a crowded market

E-waste collectors fight to stake claim in a crowded market

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HONG KONG -- Recycling methods vary widely, but consumers don't know the difference -- or care.

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong has one of the highest number of cell phones per capita, and e-waste collectors are out in force to profit from the spoils of unwanted older models. But of these collectors, only a handful of companies are seeing to it that the electronic parts are recycled using safe methods.

“My partner here, Alex, is very pure of heart and think people really do care about the environment. I, on the other hand, am more of a realist,” said Felix Chung, co-founder of EcoSage, a recycling company in Hong Kong.

He is talking about how difficult it is to persuade people here to go to companies that use advanced and legitimate methods for recycling the valuable metals found in computers and mobile phones — because in the end, they by and large go for the one that pays the most.

Chung and his partner, Alex Tam, who met while working together as environmental engineers, are trying to put a dent in the mounds of e-waste that are improperly treated in mainland China. Over the past decade, it has been widely known that areas in southern China have turned into dumping grounds for e-waste and all its toxicity, endangering the environment and the lives of residents.

The duo started EcoSage, a recycling firm, and Chung says the company is one of around five companies in Hong Kong that use methods recognized as safe for recycling e-waste.

Through his company, computer hardware is disassembled and shredded locally. With export licenses, circuit-board parts are sent to Japan and Europe, where refineries recover the valuable pieces.

But this is the exception, not the norm, for the city.

In many cases, individual consumers sell their old phones and computers to people situated on sidewalks, next to signs that says something like, “Will pay high prices for cell phones.” These collectors then resell the items to recyclers who often end up taking them to China, where processes are dubious.

Although China banned e-waste imports in 2000, recycling has moved to the black market.

“I would say that 99 percent of e-waste that goes to the Mainland is smuggled in,” Chung said. Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous region of China that has its own laws, and its border with the rest of China is controlled.

The proliferation of electronic scrap buyers looking to resell the hardware means a large quantity of e-waste does get treated in some way. But it has been widely reported that harmful methods are used.

Often, the parts are put over a heat source to separate the electronic components, but this process releases heavy metals and other pollutants into the air. Another method is to use acid baths to extract the gold, silver, copper and other valuable metals, and the acid concoctions wind up in rivers, turning the water too toxic to drink.

Chung’s company, which is certified by Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department, said he has to bid for the e-waste in competition with those who skirt the law. He said that as far as he knows, about 100 tons of printed circuit boards from Hong Kong are recycled per month using internationally accepted methods.

His clients are mostly corporations and schools who have large amounts of electronic hardware to get rid of. He said that although his services have an environmental value, it is still a challenge to compete with the less scrupulous recyclers.

“Out of 10 people, there is maybe one who cares about environmental impact. If you educate them, you might get three more on board,” he said. “So that leaves 60 percent who don’t care, and for them, it’s only a matter of money.”

Photo: Flickr/Derek Gavey

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure