Electrical appliance recycling: Making perfect the enemy of better

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The Producer Responsibility Scheme on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment has been in place for two weeks. While there are concerns arising from the scheme, the government argues that the vision for a better environment should be the priority.

How it works

Starting from August 1, consumers purchasing air-conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, computers, printers, scanners and monitors – collectively referred to as regulated electrical equipment (REE) – can ask the seller to arrange a free removal service to dispose of an item of the same type. That is, when the new REE arrives, the old one is taken away to be recycled by the seller of the new item.

Otherwise, the customer can make an appointment with Alba IWS, the sole operator appointed by the government for its recycling and treatment facility, for a free pick-up that Alba promises to be within three days upon request.

Under the scheme, suppliers of REE must be registered and pay a recycling levy of between HK$15 and HK$165 per item.

The collected REE will be dismantled to remove parts for recycling, and the recyclable components will be sorted into secondary raw materials.

How it doesn’t work

Since the scheme has been implemented, there have been concerns about the waiting time for a free pickup, smaller recyclers being driven out of the business, and the extra cost transferred to the customers.

As Alba is the sole official recycler of such waste, residents will have to wait for a few days for the company to collect their old appliance. Some complain the waiting time is an inconvenience too far. Given the limited living space, it is not realistic to keep extra appliances at home for days.

Small and medium-sized recyclers are also being affected by the new scheme.

Mr Chu from Li Hing Recycling Limited says the company has been collecting 25 percent fewer appliances. The Sham Shui Po-based reseller of second-hand appliances has been selling recycled appliances to South Africa for over 30 years.

To help residents get rid of the used appliance faster and safeguard local businesses, Mr Jacky Lau Yiu-shing, director of the Recycle Materials and Re-production Business General Association, said the government, Alba and the local players can work together.

“Local recyclers can take up the logistics work, picking up the used items and sending them to Alba. This way, they could earn $60 to $70 per bulky item,” Mr Lau said.

Recycle, reuse, reduce – Wait! cancel ‘reuse’

He also comments that the second-hand market could be shrinking because of the new scheme.

“Local recyclers would resell the items that still functioned well to the second hand market. But under the new scheme, these items are sent to Alba to be disposed of,” said Mr Lau. “Citizens cannot buy used appliances at lower prices, and this is a waste of appliances in good condition.”

But the government still argues that it is necessary to implement the scheme.

We must, we must

“The aim is to ensure that when [the old appliances] are discarded, all these items go to processing facilities,” said Mr Bernard Chan, convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council.

Every year, about 70,000 tonnes of unwanted electrical and electronic equipment is disposed of in Hong Kong. Twenty percent is dumped locally in a landfill.

There are cases where salvagers dismantle equipment that contains harmful compounds for valuable content like copper and gold. If electronic waste goes into landfills, elements such as lead and cadmium can leak and pollute soil and water.

In regard to the controversial extra costs that could be passed on to customers from the sellers, Mr Chan cites a cleaner environment and more sustainable supply chain as the priority.

“In any case, we are certainly not better off by leaving toxic substances in the soil and water for our children,” he says.

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