Twenty years since the adoption of the Basel Convention, a "catastrophic accumulation" of e-waste continues to fuel a global pile of hazardous waste.
The Basel Convention, a global treaty signed by 172 countries which regulates international movements of hazardous and toxic wastes, is marking its 20th anniversary on Tuesday.
"E-waste did not even exist as a waste stream in 1989 and now it's one of the largest and growing exponentially," Katharina Kummer Peiry, executive secretary of the international treaty, told journalists in Geneva.
"I'd say it's something in the region of six billion tons, it's a rough estimate."
The United Nations estimates that up to 50 million tons of electronic goods are discarded globally every year.
In Europe e-waste is increasing at three to five per cent a year – almost three times faster than the total waste stream. Developing countries are also expected to triple their e-waste production over the next five years.
The Basel Convention stressed that e-waste was a by-product of the business and consumer boom in electronic communications.
"Add an increasing demand for electronic gaming, higher definition televisions or smart cars, and the result is a catastrophic accumulation of e-waste, now and into the future," it added in a statement.
Most e-waste ends up in poor countries where people break up old mobile phones, computers and televisions to extract valuable metals for recycling, releasing harmful substances in the process.
Last year Greenpeace found high levels of lead, dioxins and phthalates, which can harm the body, in an area in Ghana where e-waste is stripped. Similar levels of contamination have been found at e-waste dumps in India and China.
Under the Basel Convention the export of hazardous waste from rich countries to poor ones is illegal in principle, unless the receiving government has given explicit prior consent.
According to a report by the Geneva-based Basel Convention Secretariat, 101 countries legally exported a total of 11.2 million tons of hazardous and other wastes to 51 states in 2006. This compares with 9.7 million tons in 2004.
Yet unknown additional quantities of hazardous waste continue to be sent abroad illegally.
"The common way exporters get round existing regulations is to re-label e-waste as second-hand goods for recycling," said Tom Dowdall, coordinator for greener electronics at Greenpeace International.
The environmental group has been pushing electronic firms to make safer products with reduced levels of toxic chemicals and to take responsibility for them through their lifecycle.
Despite the gloom, he said there had been a big improvement over the past four to five years.
"Companies like Sony and Phillips have come round to a new business model and a number of firms have formed a coalition in Europe to make sure producer responsibility is being promoted. There is still a long way to go, but progress is being made," he said.
Turning a blind eye
Jim Puckett, coordinator at the Seattle-based non-governmental organization Basel Action Network, said e-waste was one of the biggest waste streams of concern, alongside obsolete ships.
"The convention is applicable to these but certain countries are turning a blind eye to the ongoing externalisation of risk and harm these wastes imply. It's exploitation pure and simple," he said.
But Puckett's biggest concern is the "lack of political will" to ban the export of hazardous waste from rich to poorer countries. This so-called Basel Ban Amendment was agreed upon in 1994 but has not entered into force.
"The Basel Secretariat has failed to promote it," he lamented. "It has succumbed to pressure from countries as the US, Japan and Canada."
But Franz Perrez, head of global affairs at the Federal Environment Office, didn't feel the contentious amendment could be implemented in its current form.
"It has become a symbol for NGOs... but it's not sufficient as it only covers transport from OECD countries to non-OECD," he said.
Switzerland and Indonesia plan to examine the question as part of a treaty working group and will present solutions in 2011.
On its 20th anniversary, the Swiss environmental expert felt the Basel Convention should be viewed positively, however.
"It is a success story; this is too often forgotten," said Perrez. "So-called 'toxic colonialism' has become illegal and the trade in toxic waste from developed to developing countries has been reduced significantly."
But it focuses too much on hazardous wastes, and not enough on the bigger picture and on product lifecycle, he added.
Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch
The Basel Convention was adopted in 1989 to prevent rich countries from dumping hazardous waste on poorer ones. The treaty covers toxic, poisonous, explosive, corrosive, flammable, ecotoxic and infectious wastes. It entered into force in 1992, ratified by 172 states.
Switzerland and Hungary initiated the development of the treaty. The city of Basel played host to the conference which gave birth to the pact in 1989 and gave its name to the convention. And Geneva is also host to its secretariat.
The others are the Rotterdam Convention on chemical substances and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
To mark its 20th anniversary the Basel Convention is launching the Basel Waste Solutions Circle, an initiative to implement the 2008 Bali Declaration on Waste Management for Human health and Livelihood. This will take place in Basel on November 17.
According to experts, the elimination of one cubic metre of toxic waste costs between $400-680 in Europe, fifteen times what it costs in Africa or Asia.
UNEP estimates that up to 50 million tons of waste from discarded electronic goods is generated annually.
A 2005 study by the Basel Action Network concluded that up to 75% of scrap TVs and computers shipped to Nigeria for "re-use" ended up buried or burned.
The average lifespan of computers in developed countries has dropped from six years in 1997 to just two years in 2005. Mobile phones have a lifecycle of less than two years in developed countries.
183 million computers were sold worldwide in 2004 - 11.6 per cent more than in 2003. 674 million mobile phones were sold worldwide in 2004 - 30 per cent more than in 2003.
By 2010, there will be 716 million new computers in use. There will be 178 million new computer users in China, 80 million new users in India.