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08 July 2009 

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VOA Online Discussion: e-Waste

Guest: Sarah Westervelt, Basel Action Network
Date: 8 July 09
Moderator: Erin Brummett

Erin: Welcome to T2A chat as we learn about efforts to properly dispose of tech trash, old computers and electronics. Many companies and organizations responsibly recycle e-Waste. But a lot of e-Waste is illegally exported dumped in developing countries primitive electronic waste processing systems. Sarah Westervelt is with BAN, Basel Action Network, and she joins us from Seattle, Washington…


There should be an international body to set the same standards for developed and developing countries. Anil Kumar, India (email)

Sarah: I completely agree that there should be one high standard for all people in all nations. This is a toxic waste stream that can poison entire regions and communities and we need to have a single standard that's protective of human health and the environment. Already, the U.N. is undertaking a multinational dialogue called PACE (Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment). This is a U.N. project to define a global standard for collecting and recycling electronic waste.


Hio Tao Lim, Philippines (email): How much would it take to build a world-class and environmentally sound recycling and processing plant in a developing country such as the Philippines?

Sarah: Millions of U.S. dollars. And another difficulty is that what's needed to recycle hazardous materials is not only a high tech facility, but many other safety nets such as strong occupational laws and enforcement, strong environmental laws and their enforcement -- worker and community right to know about toxic releases into the environment or the workplace -- legal systems to allow injured people to seek recourse -- medical systems that know how to identify and treat toxic exposures -- and finally, hazardous waste disposal facilities to manage the toxic residuals. Another thing is that because this waste stream contains so many complex materials, usually there needs to be a number of different types of facilities to reclaim materials, for example, a recycler may separate circuit boards from a computer but those boards would need to be sent to a smelter to recover the metals -- so one facility won't be adequate to turn e-waste into commodities.


Claire: What is eWaste and why is it such an important problem?

Sarah: eWaste is any unwanted electronic device with a battery or a plug, so that would include everything from computers and mobile phones to printers and copiers, servers, gaming equipment, telecommunications equipment, etc. The problem is there's a great deal of unwanted equipment that's still working but the volumes are so high and the waste stream toxic that we have a very large scale hazardous waste problem, globally. In addition to the large volume and toxicity issues, electronic devices tend to not have much value in their materials -- in other words, there's not a lot of economic incentive inherent in the materials themselves to pay for responsible recycling of eWaste. To summarize, we have a large volume toxic waste problem with no one to pay for the recycling of it.


Claire: What are some examples of toxic chemicals in eWaste?

Sarah: There are both heavy metals and toxic chemicals in this waste stream and if eWaste is burned it creates additional chemicals such as dioxins and furans, which are some of the most toxic substances known -- heavy metals include lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and the chemicals include the brominated flame retardants such as PBDE's and TBBPA's, as well as some of the chemicals in plastics, such as PVC. It's important to remember that the heavy metals are elements, in other words, they never disappear -- they may change form but they will never go away. So what we're doing as a species, is we're pulling these heavy metals up from where they've been safely sequestered deep in the earth, we put them into products which we use for a few years and then we throw them away, meaning the surface of the earth. So those heavy metals become dispersed around the ecosphere, building up in the food chain.  Many of these chemicals are also persistent, bioaccumulative chemicals that easily biotransport.


Erin: Tell how the Basel Action Network was formed, how you got involved and about some programs underway to stop eWaste...

Sarah: BAN was created by Jim Puckett, who worked for Greenpeace for 16 years, on global toxicity issues. He helped with the U.N. effort to create an international treaty called the Basel Convention, which is designed to create a trade barrier for toxic waste, particularly trying to prevent it from going from developed to developing countries. There were many horrific dumping scandals in the 1980's where developed countries were paying African nations in particular to receive boatloads of very toxic waste. I personally got involved because I was getting very concerned about the way the world is headed and wanted to be part of an effort to move things in the right direction. Some of the things BAN does is to document the most egregious instances of toxic dumping in order to educate and motivate people to do better. But we also define standards for doing it right, based on existing international law and the principle of environmental justice, which is that no group of people deserves to bear a disproportionate burden of toxins, simply because of their racial, ethnic or socio economic status. All people deserve clean air and clean water, a safe place to live and work.


Claire: Talk about eWaste issues regarding Nigeria and China.

Sarah: Much of the developed world is exporting its toxic eWaste to China and Africa, as well as other developing nations. What we found in China was that an entire region in Guangdong Province is horrifically and permanently poisoned as four villages do nothing but manually disassemble eWaste and burn much of it to reclaim a few materials and dump the rest. Because China is manufacturing the world's products, they need metals and plastics as feedstock, so they've been willing to accept the world's toxic eWaste in order to gather materials for manufacturing -- even though they have strict laws against importing this toxic waste stream, and the Basel Convention requires restrictions of trade in this toxic waste. In Nigeria we found no interest in reclaiming materials, but rather a need for working equipment. Instead, what they were receiving was 500 shipping containers per month of mostly scrap, mislabeled as reusable equipment. Therefore, they burn much of the eWaste sent to them which is one of the worst things you can do with this waste stream. There have been studies documenting the highest levels ever found in human tissue for some of the brominated flame retardants and in the Guangdong Province, 80% of the children have blood lead levels above acceptable limits and there is no safe level of lead.


Erin: Are there effective solutions working out there?

Sarah: BAN is in the final stages of putting together an accredited independently audited certification program for electronics recyclers in the U.S. and Canada. We hope to go global soon to help the public identify recyclers who are willing to go beyond inadequate regulations and manage the toxic materials in developed countries and without sending them to landfills, incinerators or prison recycling operations. BAN's website for this effort is www.e-stewards.org


Erin: Thanks Sarah. Sarah Westervelt is with BAN, Basel Action Network. You can learn more here: www.ban.org We want you to know about a special LIVE VOA program event on Saturday, July 11th at 1145 utc when we bring you President Obama’s speech from Accra, Ghana – on voanews.com And then we hope you can join T2A on Wednesday, July 15th at 1800 utc when we take a closer look at the earth's rapidly growing population and its impact on economies, the environment, health and many other things -- on voanews.com!