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Environment, Global Affairs

United Nations close to finalizing a ban on Western e-waste exports

A child surrounded by electrical components and wires.

At a recent United Nations environmental conference in Cartagena, Colombia, attended by over 170 represented countries, 50 nations have ratified an amendment to the 1989 Basel Convention which will restrict the export of electronic waste to the developing world. Only 17 nations needed to ratify the amendment in order to see it introduced, but the deal, brokered by Indonesia and Switzerland, has found significant support.

The Basel Convention was the first UN attempt to force all nations to deal with their own waste issues domestically, but it failed in 1995 when efforts to codify the regulations into law floundered. The new amendment to the convention removes many barriers to making the ban legally binding, and states that “all forms of hazardous waste including that sent for recycling, to obsolete electronic waste, will be banned from leaving wealthy countries destined for developing countries.”

The ban will restrict the export of traditional electronics such as discarded computers and mobile phones, but will also cover equally dangerous materials such as refrigerators, washing machines, and air conditioners. According to The Independent, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Philippine Board of Investment conducted a study of e-waste shipments into the Philippines between 2001 and 2005, and found that 1.2M second-hand televisions, refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners were estimated to have entered the country.

And the Philippines study examined only one of dozens of developing nations that accept e-waste imports for processing, and the survey looked only at a four year window. Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network (BAN) reported in the New Zealand Herald that “I’ve been working on this since 1989 and it really does look like the shackles are lifted and we’ll see this thing happen in my lifetime.”

“I’m ecstatic,” he said.

Mr. Puckett reported in The Independent that the United States is by far the largest exporter of e-waste material to the developing world, and that many U.S. companies will list electronic waste as an “export” when sending the waste material to a developing nation in order to avoid paying taxes on the shipment. And the United Nations estimates that 50M tonnes of e-waste are disposed of each year. And when only 10 percent of that material is recycled, upwards of 45M tonnes of the the material ends up in landfill.

Some countries are reticent to ban exports of electronic waste, though for significantly different reasons. Puckett reported in the Herald that Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Japan have been the most vocal opponents of the export ban, relying on overseas shipments to effectively deal with the vast majority of e-waste generated domestically.

But some countries in the developing world are also anxious about the potential ban for the revenue that such exports bring in for the often dispossessed fragments of the population who rely on e-waste processing and scavenging for their livelihoods.

Dyah Paramita, an environmentalist from the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), argued in the Jakarta Post that “the agreement would have little effect in Indonesia’s case, as the demand for old electronics was still robust in the country.” Paramita suggested that the Indonesian government remind its citizens about the dangers posed by using or recycling electronics.

The ban is important because of the potential health risks associated with e-waste processing. From reported cases of tuberculosis in Manilla from the burning of copper, to the burning of plastic casing and the release of carcinogenic gases that follows, recycling or otherwise processing e-waste in the developing world is synonymous with health hazards. What is becoming clear is that there is now, and has always been, ar reason why Western nations are keen to export their e-waste rather than process the waste domestically.

Some are arguing that in order for the ban to be effective, and to reduce the risk of e-waste smuggling, Western nations must move towards zero-waste policies that aim to reduce the amount of e-waste being generated in the first place. Failing this, they must create stricter regulations for the use of hazardous materials in their electronics. If retailers make these demands from their manufacturer suppliers, the changes can be made slowly through the supply chain.

Mulki Friatna, head of advocacy for the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, told the Jakarta Postthat “industrial countries should promote strategies that encourage zero-waste or green products policy, meaning products [that they manufacture] do not contain hazardous materials at all,” Mulki said.

A United Nations ban on electronic waste export would go some distance towards reducing the ill-effects of e-waste recycling and disposal in the third world, although the key issue is less what is in the Basel Convention amendment, but who signs on. Western opposition, especially from the United States and other major Western powers, will likely keep the ban from being as effective as its proponents wish it to be.

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This article originally appeared in Digital Journal on 10/25/2011.


About awreeves

Environmentalist Geography MA Nonfiction MFA Citizen


One thought on “United Nations close to finalizing a ban on Western e-waste exports

  1. That’s fantastic news. Hopefully this will encourage more localized recycling and less needless discarding. The minerals needed to produce electronics won’t last forever–in order to sustain this IT revolution, we’re going to have to focus on recycling much more.

    Posted by scottbartlett | October 27, 2011, 12:06 am

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