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E-Waste Creates Economic, Environmental Problem for Developing Nations

  • Solenn Honorine

Societies are producing more and more electronic goods, and therefore more and more electronic waste, or e-waste. The United Nations' Environment Program has released a report that warns of a dangerous rise in the amount of such waste, which is often simply dumped in developing countries, posing health hazards to residents.

Every year the world produces 40 million tons of electronic waste: from TVs to refrigerators to cell phones and computers. And this figure will only increase.

For instance, by 2020, China is expected to throw away seven times more cell phones than now, and India 18 times more.

These high-technology goods not only are bulky, they often contain toxic materials such as lead and mercury. If the e-waste is not taken care of properly, it can cause pollution and health hazards.

The Basel Action Network is a private group focused on halting the trade in toxic goods, particularly waste goods. Executive director Jim Puckett says the world needs to take urgent measures to end toxic trash.

"The industry has built in obsolescence unfortunately, so we're seeing things become waste quicker than every before," Puckett said. "Computers now have a life span of about two years now in the North; many mobile phones are turned over within six months when somebody wants to newest model. So we are creating a mountain and we're not going to stop people from consuming. So the first thing we need to do is to get the toxic materials out of the equation".

The issue of e-waste is one of several topics being discussed this week at the United Nation Program for Environment's conference in Nusa Dua, Indonesia.

Achim Steiner, the agency's secretary-general, says much of the e-waste should be recycled. Beyond the environmental reasons, there is also an economic incentive, he says: for example, three percent of the gold and silver mined worldwide is used in personal computers and mobile phones.

"If you start investing and recycling and reusing these materials, you actually begin to look at turning a problem into an opportunity; you start creating jobs, you start reducing the amount of metals that leaves the cycle of our economy, you can reuse them," Steiner said. "So those are all advantages if you begin to manage electronic waste not as we see from industrialized countries to least developed countries without legislation. It is actually being dumped in the backyards of the slums of this world."

The Basel Convention is an international agreement setting global guidelines on handling e-waste. But it is not without weaknesses.

The United States, the single largest producer of e-waste, has never ratified the convention. Also, e-waste has become a highly profitable illegal trade. Some companies get rid of their trash by exporting it to poor countries where, instead of being treated or recycled, it piles up in landfills, and the toxic materials can leach out into water and soil.

"One example that happened in West Africa: they export obsolete cars, and they stuff the cars with obsolete computers hidden in the cars. So we have all those ingenious schemes to do it. And it is actually in that sense very comparable to arms smuggling, and drug smuggling because the incentives are financial and a huge business is to be found in this," said Katharina Kummer, the executive secretary of the Basel Convention.

The problem today is compounded by the growing complexity of the trade. E-waste used to be produced by developed nations and then dumped in poor countries. But today poor countries without recycling capacity export their e-waste to nations like China, and emerging economies are also increasingly net producers of e-waste: China for example has become the second larger producer after the United States.

Katharina Kummer says there remain limits to how much the traffic can be curbed.

"The responsibility of the countries is to adopt legislation and to enforce it," Kummer said. "The problem though is that it requires a huge amount of money, and even the highest developed countries, like the countries of the European Union, do not have the necessary resources to prevent all those illegal exports from happening. So you can imagine what it would look like for a poor country in Africa for example or a poor country from another part of the world".

Electronic waste is more than an economical problem. It also affects the health of millions of people who make a living by stripping out the waste dumped in their countries. Environmental experts say it will take new funds and manpower to solve the problem, by establishing safe recycling facilities and curbing illegal exports.