REGULATIVE MEASURES TO CONTROL THE GLOBAL TRADE OF E-WASTE: International Treaties and Problem Handling in China and Hong Kong

By Lennart Aldick

1. Why is e-waste shipped to China and what is Hong Kong’s role?

According to the Basel Convention, “a tightening of environmental regulations in industrialized countries [in the late 1980ies] led to a dramatic rise in the cost of hazardous waste disposal. Searching for cheaper ways to get rid of the wastes, ‘toxic traders’ began shipping hazardous waste to developing countries and to Eastern Europe” (Basel Convention 2011). Aside from cheap labor, developing countries usually have rather lax or not well enforced environmental and occupational regulations. Additional incentive to export waste from the industrial world to developing countries is due to the continuing decline in shipping costs (Puckett et al 2002: p. 8).
Due to its port and, one of the biggest in the world, and its importance for South China, Hong Kong is often used as a major transit hub to transport e-wastes and other recyclable materials to China. Moreover, while China insists on pre-shipment inspections at the departure port, Hong Kong does not require this procedures before recyclable wastes are shipped to its port. And since Hong is a “Special Admnistrative Region” of China, there are no noteworthy restrictions on waste imports that are transported to China from Hong Kong (Michikazu 2005: p. 57 and 61-62).
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2. Legal background and regulations for importing and exporting waste

2.1 Basel Convention:

The Basel Convention is a United Nations treaty that is currently signed by 178 and ratified by 175 countries. It is mainly concerned with controlling the movement and dumping of hazardous wastes by developed countries in developing countries. Moreover, it aims at minimizing social and environmental impacts of hazardous wastes in general. Ratifying members are supposed to recycle hazardous waste in close proximity to its point of production. Export and import of hazardous waste is generally forbidden and only allowed in certain circumstances. Member countries agreed to fulfill implement predetermined recycling policies and also monitoring strictly the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes. On a side note, the USA is the only OECD country that did not ratify the treaty (Basel Convention 2011).

 

2.2 Hong Kong:

The waste import and export control in Hong Kong is regulated by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) under the Waste Disposal Ordinance (WDO), Chapter 354. It is stated that “… any import and export of prescribed hazardous, non-recyclable and contaminated waste for whatsoever purpose; and import and export of other waste for a purpose other than recycling must be authorized by EPD through a permit” (EPD 2010: Waste Guidelines and References). Generally, e-waste is considered to be hazardous. Accordingly, a permit can be denied when, among other things, the authorities of the importing country do no consent to the import, an environmentally sound management of the waste in the importing country is not guaranteed, or when the waste comes from listed developed countries. Enforcement and Prosecution is also regulated under the WDO, Chapter 354. However, the sincerity of measurements taken by the EPD is disputed: “[…] the watchful eyes of inspectors are not necessarily as clear as they might be […]” (Michikazu 2005: p. 61).

Prosecution Statistics 

From September 1996 to the end of 2009, EPD inspected about 5,900 waste shipments and intercepted 625 illegal imported shipments of hazardous waste under the Basel Convention.

 

 

2.3 China

China banned any kind of e-waste import in the year 2000. However, “in praxis [this] does not prevent large inflows of WEEE [waste electrical and electronic equipment] especially into Southern China (UNEP 2009: p. 79). The UNEP report further mentions that despite the recent emergence of big recycling companies that are equipped with sufficient technologies to recycle e-waste in an environmentally sound manner, these plants are unable to process the huge amount of e-waste domestically produced and imported to China. Furthermore, the process of creating and implementing regulations regarding the recycling of e-waste proceeds very only slowly. Thus, a huge number of informal recyclers is using highly dangerous methods to extract valuable materials (UNEP 2009: p. 66 – 67).

 

3. Why do large amounts of e-waste continue to flow into China via Hong Kong?

Despite the above stated legal measures that shall prevent the international trade of e-waste the problem is still unsolved. China in particular remains a major recipient of global waste shipments. A considerable part of the problem is the “one-country, two-systems” relationship of Hong Kong and China. According to Hong Kong’s EPD, following stardards apply for waste shipments from Hong Kong to and Mainland China:

 

Upon China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong on 1 July 1997, the Basel Convention is no longer applicable to waste movements between the Mainland and Hong Kong, as such movements will be within the territory of a sovereign state. On the other hand, waste movements between Hong Kong and overseas countries will be regarded as movements between China and the overseas countries. 

 

To ensure that an appropriate control arrangement will continue to be implemented for shipments of waste between the Mainland and Hong Kong, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed in January 2000. Under the control framework established in the MOU, shipments of hazardous waste between the Mainland and Hong Kong are not allowed unless prior written consents are given by both competent authorities (the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and the Hong Kong EPD).” (EPD Hong Kong)

 

In other words, “… Chinese regulations and standards are not being applied in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, imports of wastes that are banned by China and those failing to meet Chinese import standards can still be exported to the mainland via Hong Kong”(Michikazu 2005: p. 61). In addition, Michikazu found that the prior written consent which is necessary to transport waste from Hong to China is purely nominal because Hong Kong authorities have 14 days to submitt the documents to their counterparts in China – after the waste is shipped out of Hong Kong. By that time, a container load of mobile phones is already “recycled”.

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