Electronics Industry Lobbies to Classify E-waste as Non-waste to Allow Export to Developing Countries

At this week’s meeting of the Basel Convention – an international treaty designed to protect developing countries from international toxic waste dumping -- computer and other electronic equipment manufacturers are pressing hard for exemptions from established controls on the export of electronic waste or e-waste.  The proposed exemptions would allow untested or non-functional electronic waste, often containing toxic lead, cadmium, mercury and brominated flame retardants to be considered a non-waste and subject to free-trade in many circumstances so long as the exporter can claim that that the old equipment might be ‘repairable’.

The Basel Action Network (BAN) will condemn the latest industry move today at the opening of the 11th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention (COP11).  This week’s meeting comes on the heels of the previous COP10 Basel meeting in 2011 that celebrated the advancement of the Basel Ban Amendment – an international agreement that forbids the export of hazardous wastes from developed to developing countries, and is already implemented by 33 developed countries.  BAN argues that this latest industry effort would undercut the very reason for the Basel Convention, not to mention the Ban Amendment.

“This is really a very shocking effort to further widen the floodgates of a tide of toxic techno-trash already inundating ports and dumps in Africa and Asia,” said Jim Puckett, Executive Director of BAN, “Industry claims this will foster re-use, which we fully support, yet they fail to adequately explain why re-use can’t be done in accordance with established Basel Convention rules.  Truly caring about about re-use, would mean that manufacturers would make equipment that lasts longer, is upgradable, and does not contain toxic chemicals.  It’s all just a bit disingenuous to claim that exporting broken, obsolete toxic equipment to developing countries is best for the environment.

The battleground for waste de-listing for ‘repairable’ electronics is a guideline entitled Draft Technical Guidelines on the Transboundary Movements of Electronic and Electrical Waste (e-Waste).  The important overall conclusion of the Guideline without the proposed “for repair” exemptions is that if equipment is not functional or not tested then it is a waste, consistent with longstanding interpretations of the Basel Convention.

ITI (the Information Technology Industry Council), are spearheading this latest attack on the Basel definitions, is a high-tech industry lobby association and includes major computer and TV manufacturers, such as Dell, HP, Sony, Samsung, LG and Apple.  Ironically, many of these companies individually have boasted policies against exports of e-waste.  Yet it is known that ITI lobbyists have been approaching countries all over the world for months to persuade them to de-list broken, obsolete, used equipment from being considered waste under Basel, as long as it is exported in various broad categories of “repairable” electronics.

According to BAN, a reparability claim can be made for virtually any type of broken, dysfunctional, obsolete or junk electronics. And even if the repair really does take place such operations invariably create massive amounts of hazardous scrap, as it most often involves swapping out whole circuit boards, mercury lamps, CRTs, batteries, etc., resulting in the hazardous waste ending up in developing countries – who have the least ability to manage it.

It is feared that if  “for repair” claims are all that is needed to remove e-waste from the Basel Convention regulatory regime, then this will become the means by which most, if not all, e-waste will be “managed”, and it will be able to proceed from developed to developing countries without pre-notifications, and without the ability for recipient countries to reject or consent to the shipments as required by the Basel Convention currently.

Recyclers in the US and Europe are also concerned about these dramatic exemptions because their investments in businesses to dismantle or shred e-waste and transform it into commodities will be undermined once it suddenly becomes legal to simply export whole broken, junk equipment, without the expense of properly processing them.

“BAN represents over 100 recycling facilities and their customers who understand the need to abide by the responsible rules of the Basel Convention,” said Puckett.  “It has been an expensive undertaking for them to internalize costs and do things the right way.  Now its,  ‘Nevermind!  Don’t bother because almost everything can now be labeled repairable and simply shunted off to Asia or Africa.’  These exemptions, if accepted, would represent a devastating setback for both the responsible recycling industry and for human health and the environment in developing countries.”