Tackling Mountains of E-Waste: 50 Million Tons Per Year

NAIROBI, Kenya, December 4, 2006 (ENS) - Representatives of 120 governments pledged Friday to fight the rising tide of electronic waste, or e-waste, with projects to take back obsolete electronics and with "urgent action" to fight illegal e-waste traffickers.

Each year, up to 50 million metric tons of e-waste are generated worldwide due to the growing demand for new computers, mobile phones, TVs and other consumer electronics.

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Cinese workers break up waste electronics. (Photo courtesy Basel Action Network, BAN)
Declaring that urgent action is needed to take charge of e-waste, delegates at the eighth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal decided to back a life-cycle approach and promote clean technology and green design for electronic and electrical products.

The Convention has an obligation to minimize the generation of hazardous waste, including electronic waste, which contains lead, cadmium, and mercury and are housed in plastic casings that emit carcinogenic dioxins and polyaromatic hydrocarbons when burned.

“Governments need to develop effective regulatory regimes that empower the market to respond positively to the challenge of e-wastes," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), under whose auspices the Basel Convention was adopted.

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Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin, ENB)
"By partnering with the private sector and with civil society, they can promote collection chains that channel obsolete goods back to their original manufacturers for recovery and recycling,” Steiner said.

Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai, Kenya's assistant environment minister, praised the work of nongovernmental organizations Greenpeace, Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and others for bringing the e-waste issue to the forefront globally.

Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, based in Seattle, Washington, was encouraged by the outcome. "Finally, the Convention fully recognized what NGOs had been saying for a long time about the seriousness of the e-waste crisis and vowed to take actions for green design of electronics and for closing off global e-waste trafficking," he said.

After a one day forum on e-waste held Thursday, ministers, corporate officers, and nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, explored solutions for advancing the collection, separation, re-use, refurbishment and recycling of obsolete electronic products.

Finally, the conference approved the Nairobi Declaration, which states the importance of minimizing the generation of e-waste and reducing transboundary movements of these wastes.

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Delegate Yue Ruisheng of China called for the enhancement of Basel Convention Regional and Coordinating Centers to help developing countries increase their ability to control the movements of hazardous waste. (Photo courtesy ENB)
The governments declared, “We shall promote clean technology and green design for e-products, including the phase-out of hazardous substances used in production and included in components and shall promote product stewardship and extended producer responsibilities in the life-cycle management of electronic and electrical products.”

The Declaration states that "illegal traffic in e-waste is a serious concern that requires urgent action in the context of the implementation of the Basel Convention."

Illegal e-waste traffic can occur when unscrupulous recyclers and brokers pack a container of functioning used electronics with junk.

"We shall prevent and combat illegal traffic of e-wastes," the governments declared.

After the declaration was adopted, David Brown took the floor on behalf of the United States to object that the declaration “does not build confidence in global markets.” Brown said the call for a phase-out as opposed to a reduction of toxic substances was "unrealistic.”

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David Brown was part of the U.S. delegation to the Basel Convention conference in Nairobi. (Photo courtesy ENB)
Brown said the Basel Convention is not the appropriate place for design issues and objected to this activity "in the strongest terms."

He stood alone, however, as most delegates recognized that the Basel Convention was established to reduce and eliminate hazardous substances in waste, and that one of the most effective ways to do so is by designing products that do not incorporate toxics such as lead and brominated flame retardants.

Electronics producers have been working for years on solutions to these problems, says Mark Small, Sony Electronics vice president of environment, safety and health. "We've always been a very strong supporters of these programs and the UN effort in this area," he said.

"Our main focus is on green design," said Small.

He says the company has eliminated toxic lead in the solder used to attach electronic parts togther and has also eliminated brominated flame retardants from virtually all of the thousands of different Sony products manufactured world-wide.

Manufacturers, including Sony, have replaced the old cathode ray tubes for televisions and computers with liquid crystal displays, LCDs, which are smaller, lighter and more energy efficient. Cathode ray tubes can each contain up to four pounds of lead.

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Despite company efforts to reduce waste with green design and participation in collection and recycling programs, waste Sony products end up trashed. (Photo courtesy BAN)
Small says that as a company Sony supports the concept of extended producer responsibility that requires companies to design products for minimum environmental impact.

"What we've done, consistent with the UN concept of extended producer responsibility, is that we do not design our products to meet just U.S. regulations or European regulations but for the most stringent regulations in the world," Small said.

When it comes to recycling, manufacturers like Sony back a "shared responsibility system," says Small. "To do this efficiently takes a number of players. The manufacturer has to use green design, incorporate recycled content; consumers must want their products recycled enough to bring them to the waste collection event or drop them off at retailers; and retailers must participate through informing consumers."

The mountains of waste materials that result from take-back programs should be viewed as a resource, Small said.

The concentration of copper in e-waste, for instance, is much higher than the concentration in copper ores presently being mined, he said. "The issue is how do we get this material back together to extract, and reuse the materials."

"With so many millions of tons of electronic waste, if properly managed, we do have that volume of material, we can pull the metals out of it," said Small, "so that at a minimum we don't have to extract new metals from the Earth, which causes environmental damage."

But e-waste now often ends up in huge waste piles and unpermitted dumps in developing countries such as one in the vicinity of the Ikeja Computer Village, near Lagos, Nigeria.

Thousands of vendors sell all kinds of refurbished computers, fax machines, and cell phones, but up to 75 percent of the electronics shipped to the Computer Village are junk, says the Computer and Allied Product Dealers Association of Nigeria, a local industry group.

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Obsolete computer monitors are stacked ready for shipment. (Photo courtesy Nevada DEP)
In its October 2005 report, "The Digital Dump: Exporting Re-use and Abuse to Africa," the Basel Action Network found that e-wastes are entering African port cities such as Lagos, Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, and Cairo.

Collecting information for that report, Puckett saw huge piles of e-waste throughout the Nigerian countryside. “We saw people using e-waste to fill in swamps,” Puckett recalls. “Whenever the piles got too high, they would torch them."

Puckett says residents complained about breathing the toxic fumes, but the dumps were never cleaned up. "We saw kids roaming barefoot over this material, not to mention chickens and goats," which are later eaten by residents.

At the Basel Convention conference, governments agreed to fight such dumps and the health and environmental damage they cause by launching pilot projects to establish take-back systems for used electronic products, strengthening global collaboration on fighting illegal traffickers and promoting best practices through new technical guidelines.