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International Conference Seeks to Reduce Hazardous Waste


Representatives from about 120 governments are gathering in Kenya's capital Monday for a week-long conference on how to reduce the production of hazardous wastes and promote re-cycling and re-use. Cathy Majtenyi reports from VOA's Nairobi bureau.

Of particular concern to the experts is what as become known as "e-waste," toxic substances, such as lead, cadmium, mercury and other hazardous wastes, that are found in electronic devices, such as computers and cell phones.

The disposal of these devices generates up to 50 million metric tons of e-waste each year, or more than five percent of all municipal solid waste.

Experts say much of the e-waste ends up in African and other developing countries.

A spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, Nick Nuttall, says a recent study shows that tens-of-thousands of computers and other equipment are shipped to developing countries by people wanting to give a donation to the poor.

"Up to 75 percent of them (equipment) were defunct - they were not just obsolete, they just don't work," Nuttall says. "These are going to end up in landfills, and, as they degrade, they can emit a wide range of toxic chemicals, from heavy metals to things called PCBs, which are very persistent in the environment. They get into the drinking water, they get into the river systems, they get into the coastal waters, and, then, of course, they can travel in currents around the world."

Experts say the problem of e-waste is expected to grow, as the supply of electronic goods increases.

Some 183 million computers were purchased worldwide in 2004 alone.

Many of those are now obsolete, and are being thrown away. In the United States, up to 20-million personal computers are thrown out each year, while developing countries are expected to triple their output of e-waste by 2010.

The production of cell phones is also on the rise, with the number of cell phone users around the world expected to reach two-billion by 2008.

U.N. spokesman Nuttall says another item on the conference's agenda will be how to safely dispose of old ships and airplanes, which also contain metals, chemicals and other contaminants.

A third major concern for the experts is the illegal shipping and dumping of hazardous waste materials to countries made vulnerable by weak regulatory or enforcement systems, such as happened in Ivory Coast in August.

At that time, a ship chartered by a Dutch company offloaded several hundred of tons of dangerous chemicals at 15 sites in the capital, Abidjan.

At least 10 people died from effects believed linked to the toxic waste, and more than 100,000 people sought treatment following the open-air dumping.

The conference is being hosted by the United Nations Environment Program under the auspices of the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.

The convention, adopted in 1989, but yet to enter into force, sets out incentives and tools to minimize the production of hazardous wastes, treat wastes as close as possible to where they were produced and reduce the international movement of wastes.

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