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End the Dumping of E-Waste Into the Developing World

Allen HershkowitzThe New York Times Magazine published a photo essay titled A Global Graveyard for Dead Computers in Ghana this week, which documents the dumping and hazardous management of electronic waste in Ghana. This practice is not limited to Ghana and infects many other developing countries including China, India and Pakistan.

As NRDC’s representative to the United Nations Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste in the late 1980s, a treaty that was intended to end the dumping of hazardous wastes by industrialized countries into the developing world, I have watched with disappointment for almost two decades as the United States stands virtually alone in the world in not ratifying that treaty. The dumping of electronic waste, which was a very small fraction of our concern when we negotiated the Basel treaty, is now a huge hazardous waste problem in the developing world, contaminating water supplies and land with toxic heavy metals, dioxins, PCBs and acids, and putting some of the world’s poorest populations at great risk.

Even with all that we know about this illicit, dangerous and unethical trade, it is unlikely that the United States Congress will ratify the Basel treaty due to opposition from unethical waste processors with strong political clout in Washington, D.C. And it is even less likely that Congress will enact amendments to the Basel treaty adopted by European Union nations that strengthen it and make the export of e waste to the developing world outright illegal.

Self-interested firms who export e waste to the developing world misleadingly argue that this is a “Free Trade” issue. Or they claim to be “donating” used electronics to poor people around the world who can’t afford new electronic equipment. What they are really doing is hiding behind phantom policies that sound nice but in fact export poisons to some of the poorest people on Earth, people already disproportionately burdened with unimaginable ecological, financial, social and political problems.

A new certification program called E-Stewards can help U.S. businesses and consumers avoid becoming complicit in e-waste dumping. E-Stewards, which certifies that a recycler is not exporting e-waste for dumping, is the only certification program designed and supported by the environmental community. E-Stewards certification is also the only program that comports with international laws against e-waste dumping. Businesses and consumers should be wary of recyclers touting any other certification scheme for e-waste management, or none at all. Indeed, some e-waste certification schemes were designed by representatives of the companies that engage in dumping and seek to preserve business as usual.

Photo © 2010 J Henry Fair 

carmen ortiz
11/23/2010 8:03:25 AM

The logical thing would be to require companies to develop safe methods to dispose of their products before they are allowed to put them in the market and to take them back once they are replaced with the latest. (LOL, like that's ever going to happen.) This is a dam if you do, dam if you don't problem. Nothing good comes out of it. No need to list all the negatives and the fact that only a few people actually benefit financially. But the reality is that the poorest of the poor depend on it to put just a fraction of what humans need to eat on their tables. So what do we do? As to the USA, no surprise there, our government is controlled by the wealthy. Just getting elected dog catcher requires more than the average American can afford. So what can we do? At least vote everyone out every election until they get the idea that it's not just about them. I can understand why Mr Hershkowitz sounds (and looks, based on his photo) so hopeless. I feel hopeless too.