This month, the European Union (EU) is implementing several environmental directives which will have a significant impact on manufacturers in Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta region.
The aim is to reduce waste, restrict the use of hazardous materials and promote "greener" products. Companies unable to comply will be liable to fines, higher taxes and restricted access to European markets. Clearly, the pressure is on to use more eco-friendly manufacturing processes.
"The public is influencing industry to be more environmentally-minded through their purchasing power," says Winco Yung, associate professor for the department of industrial and systems engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). "They are demanding products which are more energy efficient through NGOs which voice their concerns about the environment."
The electronics industry, among others, has had to respond. Companies in that sector have been helped by the PolyU's introduction of a programme in eco-design and manufacturing earlier this year. "The industry expressed a need for assistance and we have the knowledge, methodologies and techniques to offer," says Dr Yung.
The main objective is to provide the electronics industry with a working model and the tools to comply with the EU legislation. For example, the directives require companies to provide an "eco-profile" for every product they manufacture. The current programme will provide a set of guidelines to do this and will receive government funding. Associations representing the electronics manufacturing industry will also provide financial support.
"Right now, the industry is unclear about the requirements and smaller companies may not even be aware of them," says Dr Yung. "By the end of this two-year project, all the information and advice they need should be easily available."
The primary focus is on how to select recyclable materials, lessen or eliminate the use of hazardous materials, and implement green production processes. Attention will also be given to using energy and water more efficiently and minimising every kind of waste.
The stricter legislation means that manufacturers face many challenges. They may need to source new materials, redesign products or develop new ones, retool production lines, and invest in new equipment. However, one of the biggest challenges will be to find designers and engineers with the experience and ability to implement these changes. "The work requires a broad perspective because it is about creating products that are functional and meet a whole new set of environmental guidelines," says Lorraine Justice, head of PolyU's school of design, which is jointly running the programme.
Students will benefit by being able to contribute to the project and conduct related research. "Having eco-design experience on a resume will make candidates very attractive in the job market," Dr Yung says. "Our product design and product engineering graduates all find good jobs," Professor Justice adds. "We cannot supply enough of them."
The University is planning to set up a master's degree programme in eco-design and manufacturing. This would allow professionals with industry experience to update their skills and learn about the very latest environmental requirements. "It will equip them with the problem-solving skills to create innovative and environmentally-safe products," says Professor Justice.