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

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.

“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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