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Reducing the growing e-waste mountain

(Keystone)

Environment ministers and experts in Nairobi have agreed steps to tackle the rising problem of the transport and disposal of electronic waste.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that up to 50 million tons of waste from discarded electronic goods is generated annually.

Improper disposal of "e-waste" can release hazardous chemicals and heavy metals into the environment.

"The amount of e-waste is growing and creating lots of unresolved problems mainly in developing countries," Thomas Kolly, head of the international division at the Federal Environment Office, told swissinfo.

"Many African delegations have stressed that there are huge amounts of waste arriving in their countries from the developed world which they refer to as a 'ticking time bomb'."

Kolly headed the Swiss delegation at the weeklong conference in Nairobi to review the Basel Convention, aimed at reducing the movement of all types of hazardous waste, including e-waste.

Switzerland, headquarters of the Basel Convention secretariat, attaches considerable importance to the convention as "the only real basis for tackling e-waste".

Kolly expressed his great satisfaction with the negotiations.

"The participants at the conference will be issuing a declaration on e-waste as the start of a partnership between governments, industry and civil society to combat the problem," he said.

Delegates have agreed to launch pilot projects to set up take-back schemes for different products, drawing on the Basel body's work with a dozen big mobile phone manufacturers studying ways of recycling or safely disposing of obsolete handsets.

They have also pledged to boost global cooperation on fighting illegal trafficking and improving technical guidelines.

Kolly added that the next steps would be the "concrete work, which means giving life to this platform".

Driving seat

Switzerland has been in the vanguard of dealing with e-waste, such as mobile phones. In 2002 it launched a successful initiative to convince the telecom industry to recycle old phones or dispose of them correctly.

The deal, the first of its kind, has served as a model and has since given thousands of unwanted mobiles a new lease of life.

"We have developed collection strategies in Switzerland, Europe and North America which represent a very important pillar in combating e-waste," said Kolly.

"It is important to assist developing countries to set up similar systems to properly deal with cell phones and computers."

Ivory Coast

The conference also condemned the recent incident in the Ivory Coast where noxious fumes produced by waste dumped around Abidjan killed at least ten people and left more than 70,000 seeking medical treatment.

A decision was taken in Nairobi by the head of UNEP to set up a fund to provide assistance to solve problems in Abidjan.

"This case in the Ivory Coast has served as a starting point for raising awareness among developing countries that something has to be done," said Kolly, adding that the developed world also needs to act.

"There is growing awareness in the developing world that they also have to invest more in national administrations to deal with these types of questions."

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

In brief

The Eighth Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention on the transport of hazardous waste took place in Nairobi from November 27 to December 1.

The Basel Convention was originally adopted in 1989 to prevent rich countries from dumping hazardous waste on their poorer neighbours.

The Convention is one of a trio of treaties which aims to protect human health and the environment.

The others are the Rotterdam Convention on chemical substances and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

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Key facts

According to experts, the elimination of one cubic metre of toxic waste costs between $400-680 in Europe, whereas it costs one-15th the amount in Africa or Asia.
UNEP estimates that up to 50 million tons of waste from discarded electronic goods is generated annually.
A recent study by the Basel Action Network, concludes that a minimum of 100,000 computers a month are entering the Nigerian port of Lagos, but experts say that a quarter to 75% of them are e-waste.

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