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Tackling e-waste

February 22, 2010

Billed as the largest global environmental meeting since Copenhagen, a UN summit in Bali this week will focus on the growing threat in the developing world through discarded electronics such as computers.

A mountain of electronic waste in Uganda
Mountains of e-waste are posing real risks for developing nationsImage: Simone Schlindwein

A report by the United Nations published on Monday warned that developing countries face increasing environmental and health hazards from electronic waste. The report's release is timed to coincide with a week-long UN conference in Bali, Indonesia, on the topic which brings together officials and environmentalists from than 100 countries.

Called 'Recycling - from E-Waste to Resource,' the UN report said that China already produced more than 2.3 million tons of e-waste a year - second only to the US - and had also become a dumping ground for waste from other countries.

It warned that without immediate action to ensure safe and proper collection and disposal of materials, many developing countries "face the specter of hazardous e-waste mountains with serious consequences for the environment and public health."

A young Indian businesswoman on a mobile telephone on a wharf
Countries like India are about to see a boom in consumer electroincs - and waste

The report said the problem could worsen in the next 10 years with sales of electronic devices set to rise sharply, particularly in China and India.

"Managing this waste has become not just important, it has become absolutely urgent," Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) said in a news conference.

Not a new problem, but a growing one

It's not the first time that e-waste has been the focus of a major UN summit. Nor is the issue new. Reports of children toiling away in inhuman and dangerous scrap yards in the developing world to strip down computers, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and mobile phones from industrialized nations and extract parts that can be sold on the high street have made headlines for several years.

The job involves exposure to a number of toxic chemicals such as mercury and lead and acids, which are used in the process of extraction, and then often dumped into the soil from where they enter the groundwater.

Experts say exposure to chemicals from e-waste - including lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium and polybrominated biphennyls - could damage the brain and nervous system, affect the kidneys and liver, and cause birth defects.

The reports and campaigning by environmental groups have spurred a flurry of international agreements to regulate the global trade in hazardous waste.

More than 150 countries have signed up to the UN Basel Convention, an international treaty which came into effect in 1992 and aims to minimize the generation and movement of electronic waste across borders.

Companies in western nations that have ratified the Convention - only the US has not ratified - cannot export non-working computer equipment unless they go through a complex government-level process. This is supposed to ensure the waste will be disposed of properly in the importing country.

'Flourishing black market'

Two women look intently at a laptop's monitor
What happens to this when it gets replaced with an upgrade?Image: Bilderbox

But that hasn't happened. Experts say that, as with so many well-intentioned agreements, many of the regulations in the treaty are not implemented and remain confined to paper.

"E-waste is still exported by industrialized nations to developing countries in complete violation of international law," Benjamin Bongardt, an expert on electronic waste at the Berlin-based environmental organization NABU told Deutsche Welle.

He said there was a "flourishing waste black market" in Europe with some firms dodging the laws by labelling their waste as "second-hand."

"It's simply cheaper for some waste disposal companies in the West to rent a container, stuff it with discarded electronics and send it for 'recycling' to Asia and Africa," he said.

Bongardt called for a better enforcement of the laws and a willingness by governments to crack down on firms involved in illegally dumping electronic waste in the developing world.

Pressure on electronic goods producers

Many point out that for the measures to have real teeth, it's crucial to rope in electronic makers and pressure them to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products.

"It all begins with how electronic products are designed, what materials they contain and how they're marketed," Tom Dowdall, who coordinates a campaign for greener electronics for Greenpeace, told Deutsche Welle. "Electronics have become a disposable item today - you're constantly being asked to upgrade your gadgets. Consumers need to ask hard questions about what happens to their old phones once they switch to a new one."

Greenpeace has been ranking consumer electronic makers for the sustainability of their products. Finnish mobile phone maker Nokia topped the latest list for its product take-back policies while US computer maker Apple showed the best record on eliminating toxic chemicals from its products.

Lots of work to be done

A villager fishes for his dinner in a polluted river in Bali
Indonesia says Bali is an apt venue for the conferenceImage: AP

While an increasing number of IT firms are keen on burnishing their green credentials, there is no global framework regulating producer responsibility.

Within the European Union, producers of electrical equipment are responsible for funding the end of life recycling under a 2005 EU directive called WEEE - Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment.

But no such legislation exists for the millions of electronic products sold in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

It's hoped that the week-long Bali conference will help in linking the various initiatives to tackle e-waste to form a robust global action plan to deal with the problem.

And the figures from the latest UN report have underlined the urgency of quick action. It said that global e-waste is growing by a whopping 40 million tons a year.

The report's authors also warned that by 2020, e-waste in South Africa and China will have soared by 200-400 percent from 2007 levels, and by 500 percent in India.

Indonesia particularly vulnerable

The location of the conference is also poignant. Indonesian Environment Minister Gusti Muhammad Hatta said as a vast archipelagic nation, Indonesia was vulnerable to illegal trafficking of hazardous substances and wastes, estimating that 2,000 locations in the country were potential entry points for such materials.

Industrial emissions also include persistent organic pollutants or POPs, chemical substances that persist in the environment, accumulate through the food chain, and pose a risk to health and the environment, he said.

"We therefore believe that international cooperation and agreements, at both global and regional level, are crucial in tackling these challenges," he said.

Author: Sonia Phalnikar
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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