Data News of the Week | e-waste in Hong Kong

Cover photo credit: Monitour Project

We have a special edition for DNW this week dedicated to e-waste in Hong Kong. The notes are derived from a seminar plus brainstorm session with researchers from CUHK, HKBU, PolyU, Lingnan U, activists from Land Justice, Open Data Hong Kong, CODE4HK. This is a quick note from memory, so evidence/ statistics/ figures quoted in this note need further verification before you use them. There are enough pointers for the reader to go back the source and find direct contacts.

The news points to follow

E-waste refers to the abandoned Electric and Electronic Equipments (EEE). With the booming of ICT industry, we are witnessing more and more e-waste these days. Why should you care? Let’s cut through the news points first:

  • 75% e-waste is disappeared, as Green Peace estimates. It collects data of EEE production and calculates expected e-waste according to the lifespans of devices. Comparing this with the e-waste collection data from formal government bodies, we can see a 75% gap, meaning those are lost track
  • 97.7% e-waste in Hong Kong goes to unknown channels (figure in 2009; may change due to new recycling plant; government is trying to increase supervised channels). This may signal a large number of illegal operation, but not necessary all illegal.
  • Hong Kong used to import a large volume of e-wastes given the loophole in the legislations. Those e-wastes went to mainland China for processing. The export to China was disrupted at 2015.
  • Yards/ factories/ workshops that collect, process and dump e-wastes exist in many remote locations in Hong Kong, especially New Territory. Those locations are not easily accessible, protected by “private lands” and “gangs”, as put by Land Justice investigators.
  • Many workers in those yards are illegal immigrants, for example from mainland and South East Asia. They usually work without proper protective measures.

Projects (the DNW cases)

Screenshot: Monitour

The Monitour project from MIT used GPS trackers to reconstruct the global transport paths of e-wastes from the US. Major destinations are in Asia and Hong Kong is included in this small sampling. Checkout the interactive data visualisation here: http://senseable.mit.edu/monitour/

Screenshot: E-waste Republic

The “E-waste Republic” is an investigative report by Jacopo Ottaviani, referred to as “web documentary”, that studied the global landscape of e-waste processing and told in-depth story about Agbogbloshie in Ghana, a Western Africa country. Checkout the project here: https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2015/ewaste/index.html

This video produced by Extending the Link is a good starting point to understand the situation of e-wastes in Hong Kong. 54% e-waste from the United States tracked by a group of researchers enter Hong Kong first and then distributed elsewhere. Around 50-100 containers come to Hong Kong from the US everyday.

What to do in Hong Kong?

After the introduction of e-waste by Rolien, the participants are split into two groups for discussion. The central question from both group is how to collect location data of those junkyards dealing with e-wastes. Field investigation and photographing is very hard and unsecure as Land Justice participants already faced. Drone could be expensive, short battery and hard to fulfil the local legislative requirements.

Photo: Balloon Mapping by Public Lab

One solution favoured by Rolien is the balloon mapping technology emerged from Public Lab: https://publiclab.org/wiki/balloon-mapping . The project was first used by civic technologist to map the BP Oil Spill in 2010. It is cheap, long-operating time and mature software exists to stitch the images. The best part is that balloon, unlike Drone, is not regulated in many areas.

Screenshot: Satellite Sounds project, the DIY device to spy the satellites

Another possible solution is to use satellite images and pattern recognition techniques to find those e-waste yards. Resolution and time span are key issues. One related project used home-made devices and proper software to decode satellite messages in the wild: http://satellite-sounds.dhruvmehrotra.info . Jeff Stein’s new startup helped several investigative journalism projects by satellite imaging and received good attention on the latest Global Investigative Journalism Conference. Checkout the slides here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1FaToXXP-PY76VXlqN_RGgxNfx1zuLUzE/view

Screenshot: Fresh Water Watch measures in Hong Kong

Besides investigating the junk yards directly, participants also proposed to look at correlated factors. For example, the water near dumping sites/ illegal workshops may be contaminated by lead. By measuring water quality distribution, one may be able to predict high value sites and give direction for field investigation. Scott mentioned this crowd sourced water quality map where Hong Kong sees 760 reports from citizen scientists: https://freshwaterwatch.thewaterhub.org/content/data-map . The open data, together with shapefiles can be founded here thanks to ODHK: http://publicdatahk.com/dataset/freshwater-watch-hk-data .

More references:

e-waste interest group in discussion 

A group is formed and it targets another meeting in Jan 2018 for updates. If you are interested to take part, drop us a message.

Author/ Pili Hu


Data News of the Week (DNW) is a weekly issue of news summaries hand picked by our editors. It features a GLOCAL (global+local) perspective for the topic of concern. It tracks the latest developments from the industry and academics for methodology, tools, datasets and news agenda.


Posted by: Pili Hu

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