Nancy Weil, IDG News Service
A report by a U.S. nonprofit group calls on governments globally to
pressure electronics manufacturers to remove toxic chemicals from
their products "at the earliest possible date" and also urges
consumers to take responsibility for their electronic waste.
The Basel Action Network (BAN), based in Seattle, involves a worldwide
network of environmental activists focused on "confronting the
excesses of unbridled free trade in the form of 'Toxic Trade'... and
its devastating impact on global environmental justice." The group
focuses on human rights and the environment and aims to heighten
awareness about, and prevent the dumping of, toxic waste and pollution
in poor and developing countries. (Its name refers to an international
convention, described below, on hazardous wastes.) Its investigation
into electronic-waste (e-waste) dumping in Lagos, Nigeria, is the
topic of BAN's latest report.
As BAN notes in the report "The Digital Dump: Exporting Re-Use and
Abuse to Africa", released last week, "much of the growth in the IT
sector in developing countries has been fueled by the importation of
hand-me-down, used equipment from rich, developed countries, whose
consumers are all too happy to find buyers for it. As a result, many
brokers and businesses have sprung up to channel used equipment from
North to South, rich to poor."
The findings about dumping of used electronics equipment in Nigeria
came as no surprise to African IT leaders, who say that if African
governments fully realized the harm being done, they would take
"This is a contentious issue and if our governments understood it,
they would do something about it," said Dorcus Muthoni of LinuxChix
Africa, an organization campaigning for the adoption of open-source
software in Kenya.
Improperly discarded electronics can create hazardous waste from such
materials as flame retardants used in plastics and circuit boards,
solders containing lead and tin, barium and lead in cathode-ray tubes,
beryllium alloys in connectors, and mercury, among other potential
environmental hazards, the BAN report notes.
One of the people interviewed for the report told BAN that "This thing
is happening because they are poor. Poor countries will accept
anything," said Richard Gutierrez, BAN's toxics policy analyst.
While all of the major U.S. PC vendors have recycling programs in
place for used IT equipment, such products are often sold to brokers
for disposal and wind up in countries such as Nigeria, but also
elsewhere in Africa and in Asia. Some of the equipment is repaired or
refurbished for use in those countries, becoming important components
in bridging the "digital divide," but much of the gear -- up to 75
percent, according to some estimates -- is beyond repair and ends up in
dumps or landfills.
"Seen at ground level, the massive importation of used equipment is a
success story seriously clouded by the smoke of a growing
environmental and health disaster," the BAN report said. "The reality
is that this burgeoning new trade is not driven by altruism, but
rather by the immense profits that can be made through it and those
involved are oblivious to, or unconcerned with, its adverse
consequences. Too often, justifications of 'building bridges over the
digital divide' are used as excuses to obscure and ignore the fact
that these bridges double as toxic waste pipelines to some of the
poorest communities and countries in the world. While supposedly
closing the 'digital divide,' we are opening a 'digital dump'."
Some countries do have safeguards in place. "Sending IT equipment in
Africa that cannot be repaired should be discouraged. In Zambia, we
use the Technology and Service Neutral Approach system, which states
that all ICTs and IT equipment being exported or imported must meet
the international standard and health requirements of users," said
Shuller Habeenzu, chief executive officer of the Communications
Authority of Zambia.
The Basel Convention, part of the United Nations Environmental
Program, also addresses the issue of hazardous wastes being dumped in
developing countries and in Eastern Europe. Stricter environmental
regulations in developed nations that were imposed in the late 1980s
led to the rise in "toxic traders," as the Basel Convention Web site
calls them. Those traders set up businesses to profit from those who
sought cheaper alternatives for getting rid of hazardous wastes after
it became more difficult and costly to deal with such materials under
The Basel Convention is an international treaty that sets up controls,
enforcement mechanisms, and requirements that signatories agree to
follow, including preventing and monitoring illegal traffic in
hazardous waste, promoting cleaner technologies and production, and
focusing specifically on helping developing nations.
The treaty has been ratified by 165 countries; the U.S. is not one of
them. The U.S. signed the Convention in March of 1990, indicating
agreement with the treaty and the intention of ratifying it, but thus
far has not taken the final step in ratification. As with 'Kyoto',
President Bush has refused to cooperate with other nations. While
other nations have not signed at all, along with the U.S., only Haiti
and Afghanistan have taken that step and then failed to ratify the
treaty. The BAN report on dumping in Lagos calls the U.S. "the worst
actor" among developed countries that perpetuate dumping of hazardous
waste in developing nations. "United States just will not work with
any one else on this problem," noted one of the treaty authors.
"As the only developed country absent at the table of the world's only
waste treaty, the U.S. can be viewed as nothing short of a remarkable
example of irresponsibility," the report said. "The U.S. policy on
electronic waste is shamelessly negligent ... Canada, likewise, while
nominally a Basel Party, seems intent on ignoring the Basel waste
lists to avoid controlling e-waste exports."
In its list of recommendations to combat illegal dumping of e-waste, BAN
urges governments to pressure manufacturers to remove toxic chemicals from
products as soon as possible. That is a move that IT industry analysts and
other environmental groups also say is the only truly effective measure to
protect the environment.
BAN also calls on strict enforcement of the Basel Convention and lauds
Australia for its efforts in that regard. Australia requires full testing of
electronic waste to certify that it complies with the Basel Convention
before it is exported.
At the same time, developing countries need help to create "environmentally
sound waste management systems," BAN said. Such efforts should not be part
of continuing to export hazardous wastes to those countries, "but rather as
a necessity for any country that must deal with all kinds of wastes.
Adequate waste management is as vital to society as clean air, clean water
and clean food, for today, without it, we will have none of these things we
have taken for granted since the beginning of time."
Michael Malakata of IDG News Service contributed to this report.
Copyright 2005 PC World Communications, Inc.
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