Inside Hong Kong's Toxic Gadget Junkyards

Your old TV could end up here one day, posing a threat to people and the environment.

25/06/2016 10:30 PM AEST | Updated 29/06/2016 8:49 AM AEST
Nikada via Getty Images
Not so far from Hong Kong's modern skyline, rural workers break apart electronics at great personal risk.

Startling new images reveal the terrible conditions in Hong Kong's junkyards, where workers risk their health and safety to break down heaps of illegally imported electronic waste.

A report published Monday by HK01, a Hong Kong newspaper and online publication that promotes social change, says the region's loose border control enables discarded electronic materials to enter under the bogus labels of "housing" or "rubber" waste. Much of the e-waste comes from the United States. 

HK01's photos, shared with The Huffington Post, show workers sorting through piles of waste, which can often contain toxic materials like mercury and lead. There are heaps of old computer parts and monitors, some piled into old cardboard boxes meant for produce or stuffed into plastic bags. Workers break apart the electronics to find valuable components that can be resold elsewhere.

Towering bags of e-waste at a junkyard in Hong Kong.

The HK01 report followed up on research from the Basel Action Network, a U.S.-based NGO that fights the export of toxic materials. BAN attached GPS trackers to e-waste in the U.S. and found that recyclers were exporting the junk to other countries.

In Hong Kong's case, importing e-waste is actually illegal, Wired reported.

BAN's project highlights how some American companies get away with being "recyclers" in name only, simply shipping the e-waste off to other countries to deal with.

"They take advantage of the fact that the U.S. is the only developed country in the world that has failed to ratify the Basel Convention, which requires getting permission from importing countries before you send them toxic wastes such as old electronic devices," Jim Puckett, head of BAN, told HuffPost on Friday. 

Discarded tires and dirty water at a junkyard in Hong Kong.

The unsafe conditions at the junkyards where these materials are being handled are also alarming. Breaking down e-waste can be harmful to a person's health, not to mention the environment.

"Once the waste is in China, it's being broken down in primitive operations that release toxic metals like mercury -- which not only can immediately poison workers, but some of it will find its way back to us as air pollution in the upper atmosphere and then rain down on our lakes and rivers," Puckett told HuffPost.

BAN has a program called e-Stewards that holds recyclers accountable to the Basel Convention. Many areas lack certified programs, though -- the law doesn't require recyclers to participate.

"This is an international crime," Puckett said.

John Zhou contributed reporting.

See more photos from the HK01 investigation below.

  • HK01
    Overseers at this junkyard in Hong Kong initially denied that they were taking in LCD e-waste, but HK01 found out that was not the case.
  • HK01
    Piles of e-waste in old cardboard boxes.
  • HK01
    An aerial view of a junkyard in rural Hong Kong.
  • HK01
    Breaking apart e-waste exposes workers -- many of whom are undocumented -- to harmful chemicals.
  • HK01
    A massive pile of discarded computer equipment.
  • HK01
    Another view of a junkyard and its surroundings.
  • HK01
    A man digs through charred e-waste near the junkyard.
  • HK01
    Water is sometimes used to separate certain components of e-waste.