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Reducing Electronic Waste for a better environment

In the age of digitalisation, smartphones and laptops have become indispensable tools for many of us. People often believe that electronic devices are more environmental friendly because they use less paper. But do you know disposing these devices create their own environmental problems?

We produce a staggering amount of e-waste each year. In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste, marking a significant 20% increase from 2014.[1] Unfortunately, a considerable portion finds its way to countries like Ghana or China.[2]Hong Kong has also emerged as a hotspot for e-waste import. In 2019 and 2020, the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) successfully prosecuted 53 and 52 cases of illegal import of hazardous e-waste respectively.[3] Furthermore, in 2021, there were incidents of over 1,000 kg of electronic waste being illegally imported into Hong Kong.[4]

Global distribution of e-waste generation in 2019 (Image Source: Vanessa Forti et al.)

Less than 20% of this e-waste is recycled properly.[5] During informal recycling processes, workers often dismantle electronic devices using hammers, chisels, or even their bare hands, without any personal protective equipment.[6] Open burning and/or acid leaching methods are then employed to extract valuable materials from electronic components, resulting in the release of toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury and other into the air, soil, and water.[7]

Informal e-waste recycling in India (Image Source: The Guardian)

These pollutants pose a significant threat to individuals involved in the informal e-waste recycling industry and those residing near these sites. Children who are exposed to these chemicals suffer from reduced cognitive and language abilities, as well as an increased likelihood of coughing and asthma.[8] In India and Bangladesh, children exposed to or living in close proximity to e-waste sites are at risk of developing severe skin diseases and chronic lung infections.[9][10]Pregnant women are also adversely affected, with potential risks including stillbirth and premature birth.[11]

A pile of broken printers at an e-waste site in Hong Kong (Image Source: The Seattle Globalist)

To address the issue, the government of Hong Kong has implemented the Waste Disposal Ordinance, which prohibits the unauthorised disposal of locally generated e-waste and the dumping of imported e-waste in Hong Kong.[12][13]Individuals who engage in the improper disposal of such waste or imported e-waste without valid authorization are liable to a maximum fine of HK$200,000 and imprisonment for up to six months.[14]

Although the ordinance appears to have a deterrent effect, the penalties imposed in practice are often mild. Between 2018 and mid-2021, there were 18 successful prosecutions, but the total fines amounted to only HK$67,600, which represents a small portion of the profits made by the offending recyclers.[15] The government should review the policy, increasing the fines or implementing longer imprisonment terms to show determination in environmental protection.

Tech companies also play a crucial role in reducing e-waste. They have the power to influence product design, manufacturing processes, and consumer behavior. By prioritising sustainable practices, such as promoting repairability, designing products with longer lifespans, and using recyclable materials, tech companies can significantly decrease the environmental impact of their products.[16]

A concept laptop made for easy disassembly and maintenance (Source: Hong Kong XFastest)

In addition to the efforts made by the government and technology companies, the general public also bears the responsibility of reducing e-waste. We should prioritise reducing consumption by considering repair options before replacing a new electronic device, as faulty components can often be replaced.[17]Another effective practice to extend the life span of electronics is to purchase used or refurbished devices and give them a second life.[18] By actively reducing e-waste, we all contribute to shaping a better environment.

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