Global Watchdog: Hong Kongs EPD is Wrong About the Basel Convention and the Harm that e-Waste Junkyards are Causing in New Territories
BAN calls for a complete shut down of the polluting junkyards
June 16, 2016. Seattle, WA, USA. In response to the press release issued by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) on June 17, 2016, regarding the highly polluting, illegal e-waste handling operations discovered in New Territories by BANs two year tracking study, BAN has called out the EPD for the following:
- Continuing to protect the illegal and harmful trade in e-wastes to the New Territories area instead of doing their job as an agency charged to protect the environment and uphold their Basel Convention treaty obligations to halt the international trade in hazardous wastes.
- Showing dangerous ignorance in stating the breaking down electronic equipment as practiced in New Territories does not normally release harmful substances.
- Intentionally choosing to ignore the Basel Conventions hazardous waste definitions which clearly define most circuit boards and the electronic equipment that contain them, as "hazardous."
First, BAN is concerned that while EPD "expressed grave concern" and the headlines of the EPD press release states that "EPD will not tolerate illegal import of hazardous e-waste," they then go on to make points denying the seriousness of the matter. For the last decade, according to BAN, EPD has continually tolerated illegal importation of e-Waste, and their record for environmental protection and enforcement of international law has been negligent.
"While we must first and foremost blame the US government for continuing to export toxic wastes around the world, we can no longer stay silent on what we see as the Hong Kong governments negligence at the receiving end," said Jim Puckett, Executive Director of BAN. "As early as 2006 I personally asked EPD why they did not arrest and prosecute the obvious smugglers in New Territories, and they simply told me it was 'difficult.' Actually, it should not be difficult, and more importantly, it is their duty and obligation under international law."
According to BAN the EPD for years, despite warnings from BAN, have allowed 50-100 containers per day of toxic e-waste to enter the port of Hong Kong in violation of their Basel Convention obligations. Once inside Hong Kong, they are moved up to electronics junkyards in New Territories. In earlier days these junkyards simply repacked the contraband into smaller trucks and smuggled it into mainland. But in the last two years, mainland China has dramatically improved their border controls and are enforcing their long-standing import ban for e-wastes of all kinds. As a result, these same electronics junkyards are now doing much of the same dirty dismantling processes formerly found only in mainland but now forbidden there. The New Territories junkyards are now very busy smashing this equipment and breaking it down in a dangerous manner, exposing workers and the environment to harmful substances such as mercury, lead, toxic toners, and brominated flame-retardants. If something is not done soon, BAN fears that New Territories will become irreparably polluted like similar areas in China.
BAN, has visited more than 25 of the electronic junkyards and have found blatant illegality: Undocumented laborers, illegal importation, illegal storage and spillage of hazardous waste, violation of fire codes, violation of worker protection laws, land use laws, were obvious. Meanwhile, the EPD press release boasts that in the last 5 years they have inspected electronic waste sites 700 times but had only 16 "convicted cases."
Second, BAN expresses alarm at EPDs ignorance when they say: "As regards the dismantling of computer components and circuit boards by manual labour at recycling sites as mentioned in the media report, these simple sorting and separation of recyclable components into plastics, metal scraps and circuit boards, will not normally release harmful substances to the environment, these activities therefore will not violate the law."
EPD should know better. What is occurring at these yards on a daily basis, at least 8 hours per day, are workers breaking by hand and often violently, printers, monitors and other electronic equipment. Printers toners are released and breathed in by the workers in this process. Carbon black, the most common toner ingredient is understood to be a probable human carcinogen. And yet the workers are completely ignorant to the harm. Colored toners contain unknown hazardous substances as well their formulas are proprietary but can contain heavy metals and harmful organic substances. See Annex I for information on the health effects.
Even worse is the exposure to the extremely toxic metal mercury, from the indiscriminate breaking of mercury-laden flat screen LCD monitors that is the most commonly observed activity of the electronics junkyards. BAN found evidence of breaking in the breathing zone and indiscriminate dumping of broken CCFL tubes at many sites. See Annex I.
Constant Exposure to Brominated Flame Retardants is also a source of considerable concern. These are off-gassed from the plastics, and circuit boards in electronic equipment and fall out all over the surroundings. They are inhaled by the workforce at alarming rates in the electronics recycling industry. See Annex I.
In addition to the constant exposure to workers and the communities of the toxic substances found in computing equipment, already there have been numerous fires at these electronic junkyards, and yet it is clear that the EPD seems to accept what we observed were very poor fire prevention methods and equipment. When computing equipment is combusted, the smoke and fumes will carry and spread some of the worlds most dangerous pollutants including dioxins and furans and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons downwind. Tolerating the outdoor processing of electronic waste as the government seems to do, is, according to BAN also extremely negligent as much of the equipment is capable of self-ignition in the sun.
"Sadly, the exposure issues, and we have not even touched on the impacts on farms and fisheries, are not understood by the workers and local communities. The EPD's statement declaring these electronic breakdown operations found in New Territories, do not pose a problem for human health and the environment, is not only surprisingly irresponsible, but is exploitive of ignorant workers and will lead to their contracting occupational disease," said Puckett.
Thirdly, BAN asserts that the Hong Kong government has intentionally deviated from a normal interpretation of the Basel Convention in order to allow many more types of hazardous electronic wastes to enter the Special Administrative Region than would be allowed under the Basel Convention. It is important to note that these are the same e-wastes that Mainland China has long prohibited for import. Indeed we know of no other non-OECD country in the Asian region that has misinterpreted the Basel Convention as Hong Kong has done and done so intentionally. In Annex II BAN explains in detail why Hong Kongs interpretation is wrong.
Finally, BAN is calling for all of the operators of the informal, unpermitted e-waste smuggling electronics junkyards to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and be shut down. BAN has released their GPS data of more than 45 locations their electronic tracking devices have discovered, which they believe is a fraction of the total number operating.
"It beggars belief that the government cannot see that these electronics junkyards are operating informally, dangerously, and outside of the law," said Puckett. "Yet their press release makes excuses for them. They are involved in criminal trafficking in hazardous waste, illegal employment, and are a threat to human health and the environment of New Territories. Its past time to shut them all down."
-- END --
(1) For more information on BANs tracking project visit: www.ban.org/trash-transparency
For more information contact:
Jim Puckett, Executive Director of Basel Action Network
Phone: +1 206-652-5555
e-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org About Basel Action Network
Founded in 1997, the Basel Action Network is a 501(c)3 charitable organization of the United States, based in Seattle, WA. BAN is the world's only organization focused on confronting the global environmental justice and economic inefficiency of toxic trade and its devastating impacts. Today, BAN serves as the information clearinghouse on the subject of waste trade for journalists, academics, and the general public. Through its investigations, BAN uncovered the tragedy of hazardous electronic waste dumping in developing countries. For more information, see www.BAN.org or blog.BAN.org.
Annex I Health Impacts of e-Waste Pollutants (from Wikipedia)
- Carbon Black: In order to properly protect workers from inhalation of carbon black, respiratory personal protective equipment is recommended. The type of respiratory protection varies, depending on the concentration of carbon black used. People can be exposed to carbon black in the workplace by breathing it in, skin contact, or eye contact. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration(OSHA) has set the legal limit (Permissible exposure limit) for carbon black exposure in the workplace as 3.5 mg/m3 over an 8-hour workday. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set a Recommended exposure limit (REL) of 3.5 mg/m3 over an 8-hour workday. At levels of 1750 mg/m3, carbon black is immediately dangerous to life and health.
- Mercury: Due to the health effects of mercury exposure, industrial and commercial uses are regulated in many countries. The World Health Organization, OSHA, and NIOSH all treat mercury as an occupational hazard, and have established specific occupational exposure limits. Environmental releases and disposal of mercury are regulated in the U.S. primarily by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Case control studies have shown effects such as tremors, impaired cognitive skills, and sleep disturbance in workers with chronic exposure to mercury vapor even at low concentrations in the range 0.742 μg/m3. A study has shown that acute exposure (4 8 hours) to calculated elemental mercury levels of 1.1 to 44 mg/m3 resulted in chest pain, dyspnea, cough, hemoptysis, impairment of pulmonary function, and evidence of interstitial pneumonitis. Acute exposure to mercury vapor has been shown to result in profound central nervous system effects, including psychotic reactions characterized by delirium, hallucinations, and suicidal tendency. Occupational exposure has resulted in broad-ranging functional disturbance, including erethism, irritability, excitability, excessive shyness, and insomnia. With continuing exposure, a fine tremor develops and may escalate to violent muscular spasms. Tremor initially involves the hands and later spreads to the eyelids, lips, and tongue. Long-term, low-level exposure has been associated with more subtle symptoms of erethism, including fatigue, irritability, loss of memory, vivid dreams and depression. 140 countries agreed in the Minamata Convention on Mercury by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to prevent emissions.  The convention was signed on the 10th of October 2013.
- Brominated Flame Retardants: Many brominated chemicals are under increasing criticism in their use in household furnishings and where children would come into contact with them. Some believe PBDEs could have harmful effects on humans and animals. Increasing concern has prompted some European countries to ban some of them, following the precautionary principle more common in Europe. Some PBDEs are lipophilic and bioaccumulative. PBDEs have been found in people all over the world. Some brominated flame retardants were identified as persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment and were suspected of causing neurobehavioral effects and endocrine disruption. One particular target group is Firefighters who are exposed to brominated fire retardants during firefighting operations and is resulting in cancer rates that far exceed the general public. As an example, in Europe, brominated flame retardants have gone through REACH and when risks were identified appropriate risk management options were put in place; such was the case for commercial Penta-BDE and commercial Octa-BDE. Given the current state of waste disposal in the world, there is a potential for BFRs to be released into the environment.
-- END --
Annex II -- Why the Hong Kong government is wrong about the Basel Convention
In their press release, EPD claims that printed circuit boards, and equipment that contains such boards are not to be considered hazardous waste. That is in fact incorrect if the printed circuit boards contain lead, beryllium, or other toxic substances listed on the Basel Conventions Annex I, while possessing a hazardous characteristic listed on Annex III.
Most circuit boards today, especially those that are older and found in our electronic waste, contain high levels of the metal lead in the solders used on the boards. These levels of lead are high enough to trigger the lead threshold of toxic characteristic known as H13 (capable by any means, after disposal, of yielding another material, e.g. leachate, which possesses any of the characteristics listed above). The characteristics above include toxic, poisonous, flammable etc. The Basel Convention Technical Guideline on H13 recognizes that countries use Leachate Tests to determine whether H13 can be triggered for leachate. In the United States and Canada, the test known as the Toxic Characteristic Leachate Procedure (TCLP) is used. Circuit boards, have high enough quantities of lead in them to fail the TCLP test.
Further, circuit boards contain large quantities of Brominated Flame Retardants, which may also qualify them as hazardous waste. This is clearly asserted by the Basel Parties in the recent technical guideline on e-waste adopted on an interim basis has also weighed in on the hazardousness of circuit boards. They assert as follows (underlining added for emphasis):
- 32. E-waste should therefore be presumed to be hazardous waste unless it can be shown either that it does not exhibit hazardous characteristics or that it does not contain hazardous components or substances, in particular:
- (a) Lead-containing glass from cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and imaging lenses, which fall under Annex VIII entries A1180 and A2010 ("glass from cathode ray tubes and other activated glass") and Annex I category Y31 ("Lead; lead compounds") and are likely to possess Annex III hazardous characteristics H6.1, H11, H12 and H13;
- (b) Nickel-cadmium batteries and batteries containing mercury, which fall under Annex VIII entry A1170 ("unsorted waste batteries...") and Annex I categories Y26 ("Cadmium; cadmium compounds") and Y29 ("Mercury, mercury compounds") and are likely to possess Annex III hazardous characteristics H6.1, H11, H12 and H13;
- (c) Selenium drums, which fall under Annex VIII entry A1020 ("selenium; selenium compounds") and Annex I category Y25 ("Selenium; selenium compounds") and are likely to possess Annex III hazardous characteristics H6.1, H11, H12 and H13;
- (d) Printed circuit boards, which fall under Annex VIII entries A1180 ("waste electrical and electronic assemblies...") and A1020 ("antimony; antimony compounds" and "beryllium; beryllium compounds") and contain brominated compounds and antimony oxides as flame retardants, lead in solder and beryllium in copper alloy connectors. They also fall under Annex I categories Y31 ("Lead; lead compounds"), Y20 ("Beryllium, beryllium compounds"), Y27 ("Antimony, antimony compounds") and Y45 ("organohalogen compounds other than substances referred to" elsewhere in Annex I) and are likely to possess Annex III hazardous characteristics H6.1, H11, H12 and H13;
- (e) Fluorescent tubes and backlight lamps from liquid crystal displays (LCD), which contain mercury and therefore fall under Annex VIII entry A1030 ("Mercury; mercury compounds") and Annex I category Y29 ("Mercury; mercury compounds") and are likely to possess Annex III hazardous characteristics H6.1, H11, H12 and H13;
- (f) Plastic components containing brominated flame retardants (BFRs), in particular BFRs that are persistent organic pollutants according to the Stockholm Convention, may in some cases fall under Annex VIII entry A3180 ("Wastes, substances and articles containing, consisting of or contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), polychlorinated terphenyl (PCT), polychlorinated naphthalene (PCN) or polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), or any other polybrominated analogues of these compounds, at a concentration of 50 mg/kg or more"). In general, wastes containing BFRs also fall under Annex I category Y45 ("organohalogen compounds other than substances referred to" elsewhere in Annex I) and, if antimony compounds are used as synergists of the BFRs, under category Y27 ("Antimony, antimony compounds"). Depending on the concentration and the chemical properties of the BFRs and their synergists, plastic components containing BFRs may possess Annex III hazardous characteristics H6.1, H11, H12 and H13.
- (g) Other components containing or contaminated with mercury, such as mercury switches, contacts and thermometers, which fall under Annex VIII entries A1010, A1030 and A1180 and Annex I category Y29 ("Mercury; mercury compounds") and are likely to possess Annex III hazardous characteristics H6.1, H11, H12 and H13;
- (h) Oils/liquids, which fall under Annex VIII entry A4060 ("Waste oil/water, hydrocarbons/water mixtures, emulsions") and Annex I categories Y8 ("Waste mineral oils unfit for their originally intended use") and Y9 ("Waste oil/water, hydrocarbons/water mixtures, emulsions") and are likely to possess hazardous characteristics H3, H11, H12and H13; and
- (i) Components containing asbestos, such as wires, cooking stoves and heaters, which fall under Annex VIII entry A2050 ("Waste asbestos (dusts and fibres)") and Annex I category Y36 ("Asbestos (dust and fibres)") and are likely to possess Annex III hazardous characteristic H11.
The Basel Convention Annex VIII includes listing A1180 which clearly asserts what has been said above regarding circuit boards that is, if they contain hazardous substances listed on Annex I and possessing a hazardous characteristic of Annex III then they are hazardous. So clear was it that most circuit boards currently do fall under the Basel category of A1180 and are hazardous due primarily to lead content, that the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development when that organization wanted to both harmonize their lists of "amber wastes" with those of the Basel Convention Annex VIII, and to not control trade in circuit boards for recycling within their member states, that they made an exception for that category, while all other Basel listed wastes were harmonized. This would not have been necessary if they believed that circuit boards were not a hazardous waste under Basel.
What Hong Kong did, when they created their law with its Schedules of waste, they intentionally ignored the Basel Conventions designation of circuit boards as hazardous waste as found in Annex VIIIs A1180. Instead they acted as if Hong Kong were a member state of the OECD. But they are clearly not an OECD country. This is an inappropriate interpretation of the Basel Convention as the Convention allows national definitions that are more restrictive but not less so.
From a scientific standpoint, asserting that leaded glass as found in Cathode Ray Tube monitors (CRTs) which Hong Kong does believe are hazardous, is somehow more dangerous than the lead found in circuit boards which is more biologically available, is simply misguided.
After BAN pointed out the problem, the EPD changed their Seventh Schedule of waste to include a paraphrasing of A1180:
AA1180 Waste electronic and electrical assemblies or scrap contaminated with any substance to an extent which renders the waste as chemical waste
Unfortunately this appears just to be done on paper to look legally correct. If it were being used correctly, in fact, as circuit boards are "contaminated" with lead, Hong Kong would agree with mainland China and almost all other non-OECD countries of the world that circuit boards are indeed hazardous. Yet their recent press release stated otherwise.
It is extremely significant to fail to prohibit the importation of scrap electronic equipment containing circuit boards. Most electronic equipment does not contain mercury or leaded CRT glass or large batteries. By refusing to be concerned with the hazardousness of circuit boards, which almost all e-waste contains, is a way to simply foster a free trade in large volumes of hazardous e-waste.
The only reason that explains Hong Kong alerting the Basel definitions nationally to be out of compliance with their Basel Convention obligations, is that they wish to foster businesses importing electronic wastes, even as it is going to the primitive, environmentally harmful operations such as those existing in great quantity in Hong Kongs New Territories.
-- END --
(2) The hazardous components and constituents listed in this paragraph are provided as examples; the list provided here is therefore not exhaustive.
(3) See Appendix 4, Part 1, (c) of OECD Council Decision: C(2001)107/FINAL, this agreement is seen as a valid agreement under Article 11 of the Basel Convention.