Where [some of] Hong Kong’s old computers go to die.

Below, a stack of old PCs, monitors, and printers that, at one time, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, new. Yesterday, at the time that I took this photo, they had just arrived in bulk at a Hong Kong warehouse where they were to be sorted and – for the most part – disassembled and recycled.

The warehouse is owned and operated by the Li Tong Group, the company designated to operate Hong Kong’s municipal computer recycling program (they also handle electronics recycling for private clients – including Apple, and its entire Asia Pacific recycling program). And yesterday Li Tong walked me through their EcoPark warehouse, home to the municipal program (client confidentiality prevented them from showing locations that handle waste generated by private clients), and allowed me to photograph most of it (understandably, proprietary processes were off-limits to the camera – but not my eyes).

I’m going to post a few of those images, for two reasons: 1) searches for “waste electronics” and “Hong Kong” typically generate horrific images of polluted, unsafe workshops where workers risk their health to extract gold from circuit boards. No doubt, that’s how electronics are usually recycled in Asia, but the situation is beginning to shift a bit, and Li Tong is at the head of the Asia Pacific pack. So, hopefully these images reveal another side; and 2) Just as many American hunters believe that meat eaters should, at some point in their lives, should kill and dress their steak, I – a non-hunter – believe that every techie should have to face up to what happens to that old monitor/PC/printer/scanner/iPod after it gets tossed to the curb.

Two additional notes: first, according to Ellen Chan, the assistant director for environmental protection at Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department, only 20% of Hong Kong’s waste electronics are processed in the city’s legal, environmentally-secure, subsidized electronics recycling program. The remaining 80% is exported and presumably recycled in far less ideal conditions in developing countries.

And second, the EcoPark facility is a dis-assembly facility. Many of the materials recycled here – especially circuit boards – are sent to other facilities for further processing. As people who follow this industry know well, printed circuit boards are potentially the most hazardous materials to process, and they cause the majority of the pollution and health & safety problems in developing countries. I did not see Li Tong’s circuit board operations, though I have every reason to believe that they handle them in a suitable, environmentally-sound manner. Below, separated circuit boards in the Li Tong facility.

Devices that arrive at the EcoPark facility are evaluated and – if necessary – tested, for re-use potential. If they make the cut, they may be refurbished. But if not, they move to a disassembly line where workers break them down as far as relatively high-priced Hong Kong labor will allow. Yesterday, it was printers.

And, below, a conveyor belt slowly carrying away the disassembled components. Some of these – such as the plastics – can be packaged and sent directly to a plastics recycler. Others, like the circuit boards, will require further processing (at a minimum, shredding).

So, we have a bag full of the easy to recycle glass from scanners …

And a bag of not-so-easy/very-expensive to process circuit boards.

For better or worse, circuit boards, hard drives, and other difficult to disassemble materials are shredded at Li Tong. Below, a small shredder at the EcoPark facility.

The recycling magic, if you will, comes in the separation process after shredding. And that process is often proprietary, and – in the case of EcoPark – elsewhere. So allow me, then, to take you into the CRT-disassembly room at Li Tong. A CRT – a cathode ray tube – is a classic tube-style television or monitor of the kind that are being replaced by flat-screens. They are extremely difficult and hazardous to recycle, and different companies have different means of doing so. At Li Tong, the company uses a hot wire to cut through the glass, and then a worker literally vacuums the phosphorous powder that lines the inside of the screen. Li Tong’s process is safe, but requires considerable protection for the workers engaged in it. For reasons having to do with proprietary methods, I was asked to photograph it from a distance.

For perspective – your trusty blogger, self portrait, just after he emerged from the CRT room.

All credit to Li Tong for setting an Asia Pacific industry e-scrap standard. They have a great, well-run facility, and a very forward thinking group of managers. I was impressed.

That noted, I hope that these few images impress that electronics recycling – if done right – is an expensive, labor-intensive job. Nobody needs to feel guilty for upgrading to a slick new MacBook, but neither should people be under the impression that there isn’t a serious cost to throwing that old Mac under the bus. Increasingly, as raw materials necessary for manufacturing Macs (copper, say) become more expensive, that serious cost will be figured into the price of that Mac (already is, in fact, in Hong Kong, the EU, and Japan).

3 thoughts on “Where [some of] Hong Kong’s old computers go to die.

  1. After reading this post I realize that one of my all time favorite photos of me, “recycling” an old tv on the outskirts of the 29 Palms Marine Base – with my 12 gauge, was likely not in keeping with my otherwise strong environmental ethos. Thanks for this post. My apologies to the desert tortoise.

  2. thanks for posting this adam . Note that it is not a very capital intensive process . We want to see clean facilities like this in every country . keep it up

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