The Proper Management of eWaste Part I

The first article in a series about the current state of ewaste management around the world by SORT South Bank Hub participant Chris Blair.

The proper management of ewaste is a growing problem in both developing and developed nations, posing a risk both to the environment as well as the human populations present. Pollution from outdated electronics is no longer a local problem as the age of globalisation is capable of quickly turning developing countries into contaminated dumping grounds littered with the debris of their developed counterparts. Countries with little digital footprint are finding themselves with inordinately high amounts of ewaste present and it is becoming imperative that nations liaise with each other in an effort to curb this reckless damage being done. Negotiating international treaties is a difficult task, particularly when participants have nothing to gain except for the satisfaction of helping others, international relations is rarely associated with altruism, however the Basel Convention has begun this lengthy work binding 53 countries to adhere to better hazardous material disposal standards.

a Chinese child sitting among ewaste

A child sits amongst ewaste in Guiyu, China. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

Capable of causing untold harm to the environment and human populations, the disposal of ewaste became a major issue in the 1970’s. The breaking down of monitors, specifically cathode ray tubes, runs the risk of releasing lead and barium into ground waters as well as producing toxic phosphor emissions, while burning and using acid baths on circuit boards to obtain chips produces toxic gases while simultaneously releasing glass, lead, cadmium and mercury into water supplies. Melting plastics can produce toxic emissions and release heavy metals while the burning of cables to reclaim copper wiring releases toxins into the air, soil and water. These problems are most prominent in developing countries where government regulations are lax or where officials are willing to collude with waste importers. While many countries do have laws regarding the import of ewaste, its nature is that it can be transported in the guise of functional hardware or as equipment merely in need of repair. China, a country suffering greatly from the dumping of ewaste, has had numerous setbacks primarily due to the presence of an enormous informal scavenging sector which is unaware or uncaring of the impact their actions may have.

Filipino child burning cables for copper

 A child in the Philippines burns the plastic from cables for the copper inside. Image courtesy of CBS News.

In the 1970’s and 80’s a tightening of disposal laws saw great increases to the cost of disposing of hazardous waste, ewaste included, which lead to developing countries being chosen as dumping grounds to save costs, which resulted in a phenomenon known as ‘toxic trade’. This escalating problem soon became too large to ignore following the actions of the crew of a ship named the Khian Sea. Carrying more that 14,000 tons of ash produced by the burning of hazardous materials the Khian Sea sailed from Philadelphia to the Bahamas to dump its toxic payload until their efforts were stymied by the Bahamanian government. The Khian Sea proceeded to sail the Atlantic ocean for 16 months seeking a harbour who would accept their cargo, ultimately tricking the Haitian government into believing that they carried topsoil fertilizer. The Haitian government was informed of their true cargo by Greenpeace, but not before 4,000 tons of hazardous waste had been unloaded onto their beaches. Slinking away before they could be apprehended the crew of the Khian Sea continued without success to find a port who, knowingly or not, would allow them to dump the poison they carried changing the ships name several times in the process. Unable to find a port they, as the captain would later admit, dumped over 10,000 tons of hazardous material into the Atlantic ocean.

Cargo ship Khian Sea

Cargo Ship the Khian Sea dumped over 14,000 tons of toxic waste. Image courtesy of GREENR.

In light of the actions taken by the crew of the Khian Sea it became apparent that legislature needed to be crafted regarding the export of hazardous waste, and while these conventions would not specifically target ewaste, they would become a prominent counter to the export of ewaste to other countries. Though international treaties are difficult to construct the Basel Convention was put into law in 1992 with the signature of 53 countries. It specifically banned the dumping of hazardous waste in Antarctica, however had less of an impact in protecting developing countries due to only requiring written consent from countries supplying and receiving hazardous materials. To counter this the Ban Amendment was enacted in 1995 after receiving approval from more that 75% of the signing countries which would ban outright the export of hazardous materials intended for final disposal. While having a significant effect on the dumping of hazardous waste it falls short of aiding developing countries in reducing their intake of ewaste, which can be delivered under the guise of being functional or in need of repair.

International legislature regarding the dissemination of hazardous waste is present and effective, and with levels of ewaste present in both developed and developing countries estimated by a UNU inquiry estimated to rise in some instances by 500% in coming years perhaps it is time to craft legislature specific to ewaste, that we may reduce the harm done to our environment and to ourselves.