Hazardous hand-me-downs under spotlight at waste conference

Well-meaning schemes that pass on the industrialised world's mobile phones and computers to the developing world could constitute toxic dumping by the back door, a meeting organised by the United Nations heard this week.

The growing problem of electronic waste was at the top of the agenda of this week’s conference on the Basel Convention, held in Nairobi.

The Basel Convention is an international treaty brokered in 1989 by the UN which regulates the cross-boundary transfer of toxic waste.

In practical terms, it attempts to prevent the developing world from becoming the toxic dumping ground of wealthy states which might otherwise be reluctant to deal with their own waste.

But the high-profile case in the Ivory Coast this year (see related story) shows the agreement is not infallible and this week’s conference aims to close loopholes whilst addressing issues which simply did not exist when the convention was drawn up.

The meteoric rise of the mobile phone and personal computer have revolutionised communication, but they have also created a new tide of hazardous waste.

“As the recent tragedy in Côte d’Ivoire reminds us, hazardous wastes continue to pose serious risks for human health and the environment,” said UNEP’s executive director Achim Steiner.

“Like the climate change treaties, the Basel Convention promotes clean technologies and processes that minimize unwanted by-products. It provides the tools and incentives we need to both empower and motivate the producers and consumers of goods that generate hazardous wastes to pursue innovative solutions.

“In this way the Convention also advances sustainable development and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.”

On Thursday the Nairobi conference convened a high-level World Forum on E-Wastes to confront the growing reality that, in addition to its many benefits, the global consumer goods revolution is generating massive quantities of end-of-life computers and other obsolete electronic equipment.

Some 20 to 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste are generated worldwide every year, comprising more than 5% of all municipal solid waste. When the millions of computers purchased around the world every year (183 million in 2004) become obsolete they leave behind lead, cadmium, mercury and other hazardous wastes.

Similarly, the use and disposal of mobile phones – which like PCs barely existed 20 years ago – is increasing dramatically. By 2008 the number of cell phone users around the world is projected to reach some two billion. Leading cell phone manufacturers are collaborating through the Basel Convention’s Mobile Phone Partnership Initiative to find better ways to reduce and manage this growing waste stream.

Lessons learned from efforts to improve the management of e-wastes could also be applied to other obsolete consumer goods and end-of-life equipment, such as batteries, automobiles and ships.

The key to success will, according to UNEP, be the creation of a global framework for managing wastes that renders waste flows transparent, predictable and traceable, while reflecting the specific attributes of each waste stream.

“Because you can only manage what you can measure, we need to shine a brighter light on hazardous wastes – on where they come from, and on where they end up. More and better information about waste will also help us to tackle the growing challenge of illegal trade,” said Sachiko Kuwabara-Yamamoto, the Convention’s executive secretary.

The dumping of hazardous wastes last August in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and the resulting deaths and illnesses, has revived concern about the continuing problem of illegal trade. A 2005 report by the European Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law (IMPEL) indicates that illegal trade is on the rise. A joint enforcement operation carried out in 17 European seaports examined 3,000 shipping documents and physically inspected 258 cargo holds. Of these, 140 were waste shipments, of which 68 – or some 48% – turned out to be illegal.

Governments are working through the Basel Convention to develop partnerships with industry, the public sector and civil society aimed at reducing hazardous wastes at source and promoting recycling and re-use. They are also taking advantage of the Convention’s expanding series of technical guidelines for the environmentally sound management of specific kinds of wastes.

The Nairobi meeting will consider adopting three new sets of such guidelines for the environmentally sound management of certain persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Many of these pollutants are amongst the most hazardous substances known to humanity. Guidelines on POPs wastes and on PCBs were finalized in 2004. The new guidelines focus specifically on DDT, other obsolete pesticides, dioxins and furans.

Another hot topic at the conference was the dismantling of obsolete ships. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), which has launched negotiations on a legally binding agreement that would clarify the legal requirements for scrapping obsolete ships.

However, governments recognize that the Basel Convention also has a clear role to play in this issue.

The fate of ships which have reached the end of their useful lives has been a fiercely debated topic, with NGOs highlighting the terrible working conditions and environmental risks at breaking yards in India, China, Bangladesh and other states, mainly in the Far East, that dismantle the majority of the world’s ageing hulks.

For many of these states, scrapping the ships is a major source of employment and income, however, and it is down to agreements such as the Basel Convention to ensure trade can continue while managed in an environmentally sound way.

Sam Bond

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