Saturday, April 16, 2011 The downside of our love affair with electronics

The downside of our love affair with electronics

Lana Lam
Updated on Apr 17, 2011

Hong Kong's hunger for the newest, fastest and prettiest electronic gadgets is so robust that the industry is expected to hit US$3.9 billion this year, but what happens to the older models that are tossed aside?

For a city that is struggling to dump its own rubbish in an efficient and sustainable manner, Hong Kong also imports waste from other countries which includes waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).

E-waste presents a range of issues because it involves hazardous materials that must be recycled using proper methods.

In 2009, Hong Kong generated 72,000 tonnes of electronic waste, up 7 per cent from 67,200 tonnes in 2005.

Of the 72,000 tonnes, Hong Kong kept 7,700 tonnes in its own landfills and exported almost 59,000 tonnes to developing countries for reuse and recovery. This is usually done through second-hand dealers.

Last week thousands of consumer electronic companies displayed their wares at the spring trade fair at the Convention and Exhibition Centre amid news that sales of one of the hottest items last year, the media tablet, will continue to skyrocket.

Figures from IT research firm Gartner last week predicted sales of tablets like the iPad would increase from 70 million this year to almost 300 million by 2015.

In Hong Kong, the consumer electronics market is forecast to hit US$3.9 billion this year, while on the mainland it is expected to grow from US$127 billion last year to US$142.2 billion this year, say research firms BMI and GfK.

Computers make up more than 54 per cent of the consumer electronic sales in Hong Kong followed by smartphones, digital cameras and tablets and economic woes have done little to curb the desire.

"Spending on consumer technologies has done better than spending on all goods in aggregate," said Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the US-based Consumer Electronics Association. "Over the last 40 years, in good economic years and bad ones, consumers have again and again allocated a growing portion of their spending to consumer electronics."

However, the government is still playing catch-up in terms of dealing with electronic waste.

"I believe they are not doing enough," said Basil Wai, chief executive of the Hong Kong Electronic Industries Association. "We have many concerns about electronic waste, if we don't treat it properly. Some items we need to treat in Hong Kong, maybe some we can share with the PRC."

But this is no longer an option because since January 1, the mainland banned the import of hazardous electronic waste.

Last April, the government wrapped up several months of public consultation on a new producer responsibility scheme which proposed visible and invisible consumer fees for proper waste disposal under a "polluter pays" approach.

The findings were due out early this year but an Environment Bureau spokeswoman said this was now scheduled for later this year.

This delay was not acceptable because Hong Kong desperately needs its own legal framework for dealing with electronic waste, said Friends of the Earth senior environment officer Michelle Au Wing-tsz.

"I'm not sure why it's so late. Electronic waste is building up and they are focused on incinerators only."

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