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Future

E-Trash: Stemming The Tide Of Global Trade Of High-Tech Toxic Waste

Computers, cell phones and other electronic goods have notoriously short shelf lives. As a result they generate a tremendous amount of waste, much of it toxic. What happens to all that hazardous material? Much of it gets shipped overseas – to places like

Electronic waste is piling up.
Electronic waste is piling up.
Gilles van Kote

SEATTLE A strange ceremony took place earlier this summer on the fourth floor of a small office building in the center of Seattle, this famously forward-looking city in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

Important executives from the South Korean consumer electronics group LG had traveled there to sign an agreement with the Basel Action Network (BAN), an American NGO that opposes the international trade of toxic waste, especially waste derived from computer and electronic products, or WEEE (Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment).

"It's historical," said BAN founder Jim Puckett during the July 26 event, when LG committed itself to working only with certified recycling firms to take care of its toxic waste. In doing so, LG agreed to be part of the "e-Stewards' program, which BAN launched in 2010. Currently about 20 firms, including Bank of America and the U.S. branch of Samsung, have made the same pledge and thus been granted "e-Stewards' labels.

"People often ask me why we collaborate with firms like these, which don't really have a reputation for defending the environment," says Puckett. "I answer these questions by saying that once these firms get involved in this process, they are forced to reflect on their whole production chain and on its impact on the environment."

"The corporations are not perfect, but, in the past years, we have made more progress by working directly with these firms than by trying to put pressure on the American administration, even since President Barack Obama came to power."

BAN's primary concern is the export of toxic waste from industrial countries to Asia or Africa, where the products are treated – or often just burnt – with little regard for the environmental or health risks involved.

America leads rat pack

The United States has a particularly bad reputation when it comes to this kind of toxic trading. It is the world's top producer and exporter of electronic waste and it has never ratified the 1989 Convention of Basel, which regulates the "transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal." BAN estimates that between 50 and 100 WEEE containers travel everyday – quite legally –from the United States to Hong Kong, Asia's principal port of entry.

The European Union, in contrast, decided in 1997 to forbid the export of dangerous waste to countries that are not members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a wealthy nations club.

Puckett, a former film director, began to take an interest in industrial pollution after studying the unclear waters of Washington's Puget Sound, a complex system of interconnected marine waterways and basins close to Seattle. He then joined Greenpeace, led a campaign for the tightening of the Basel Convention and became a crusader against WEEE.

"I created BAN in 1997 because we needed to turn theory into practice. Industrialized countries and their firms could not continue using free trade and globalization as a pretext to externalize their coasts at the expense of the poorest," says Puckett. "I started in the basement of my house in Seattle. BAN began to make a name for itself when we started focusing on WEEE, which affects everybody, firms and consumers, at different levels."

His method is simple: go into the field, collect personal accounts (using a hidden camera if necessary) and then use the documents to put pressure on the firms. He can explain in details the horrifying conditions by which computers, TV sets and other kinds of devices coming from the West are cut up in China, Vietnam, Nigeria and Ghana by people working with absolutely no protection. People sometimes work in open garbage dumps where they breath in toxic fumes everyday and wade about in waters fouled by heavy metal contaminants.

The certified recycling companies that participate in the "e-Stewards' program commit themselves not to export to foreign countries the waste that has been entrusted to their care. Instead they agree to treat it themselves, using techniques that respect both the environment and take into account health risks.

There are about 50 certified recyclers in North America. Participating firms finance a little more than a half of BAN's annual budget of 1 million dollars through fees they pay to enjoy the "e-Stewards' label. The program aims to expand internationally and BAN plans to open an office in Brussels.

Indeed, Europe is not as virtuous as it seems. WEEE materials are trafficked illegally, with some exporters using fake declarations. According to Puckett, one common practice is to ship electronic waste under the guise that the machines are "second-hand" goods than can then be resold. In reality, the products are just pure garbage destined for the dump. "The companies just want to get rid of the WEEE," the BAN head says.

Read the original article in French

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