Basel Action Network — Part of the E-Waste Solution

Open burning of plastic encased metal printer and motor parts. Open burning of plastics and other material is common in order to reduce the waste to metals. Guiyu, China. December 2001. ©2006 Basel Action Network (BAN)

Over the past two days, writer Caryn Green has explained what happens to many of the e-wastes people dispose of when we get new electronics, such as computers, flat screen televisions, and cell phones. She’s introduced us to the Basel Convention, which was written to prohibit the dumping of e-waste and other toxics from wealthier countries to poorer ones. Today, she introduces us to the Basel Action Network, an NGO that promotes the goals of the Basel Convention. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

Workers unloading sea-going container full of imported televisions and monitors at Alaba market in Lagos, Nigeria. Many of these that are not working, will be tossed into the dumps outside of the market.©2006 Basel Action Network (BAN)

The Basel Action Network (BAN), is “a global toxic-trade watchdog organization” that works to prevent the dumping of used electronics from wealthy nations to developing nations. With so many companies and charitable organizations offering to collect donations of used computers, flatscreen TVs, and cell phones, consumers are often lulled into the illusion that our used goods will be used for good. Instead, many of them end up dismantled, burned, and dumped in Ghana, China, Nigeria, and other developing nations.

Named for the Basel Convention — the UN-administered agreement that regulates hazardous waste shipment — BAN is the world’s foremost organization focused on confronting the environmental and economic ramifications of toxic trade. Working to prevent disproportionate and unsustainable dumping of the world’s toxic waste and pollution on the poorest nations, BAN actively promotes sustainable and just solutions to the consumption and waste crisis — banning waste trade, while advocating green, toxic-free design of consumer products.

Why is BAN necessary? Here’s what the BAN website has to say:

There is an ugly underbelly of economic globalisation that few wish to talk about. Under the guise of simply utilizing the “competitive advantage” of cheap labour markets in poorer areas of the world, a disproportionate burden of toxic waste, dangerous products and polluting technologies are currently being exported from rich industrialised countries to poorer developing countries. In effect, rather than being helped to leap-frog over dirty development cycles directly toward clean production methods, developing countries are instead being asked to perpetuate some of the world’s most toxic industries and products and are even asked to become the global dumping ground for much of the world’s toxic wastes.

Supporting the Basel Ban

Just some of the many labels found on computers and monitors which indicated to investigators where each load of computers originated. Guiyu, China. December 2001.

Working closely with the United Nations Environment Programme as a leading NGO participant, BAN is dedicated to promoting the Basel Ban Amendment Ratifications. The Basel Ban decision imposed a ban on all forms of hazardous waste exports from the 30 wealthiest, most industrialized countries — the membership of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — to all non-OECD countries, effective January 1, 1998.

Following this decision, opponents of the ban — the United States, Australia, Canada, South Korea, and others — sought to undermine it, arguing that it would not be legally binding unless it became part of the Basel Convention through amendment. Citing restraint of trade concerns, the opposing governments, joined by the United States Chamber of Commerce and the International Chamber of Commerce, have launched a lengthy and convoluted international legal fight apparently aimed at delaying compliance.

To learn more about the Basel Ban and Basel Action Network’s efforts to promote ratification, read “The Basel Ban: Triumph over Business as Usual” by Basel Action Network founder, Jim Puckett.

e-Steward Recyclers

Are old electronics piling up in your house or workplace? Look for an e-Steward recycler before you discard them. Photo: Caryn Green

Perhaps surprisingly, even the “take-back” programs provided by some of the world’s leading electronics manufacturers and retailers can’t be trusted, according to BAN. Taking your used electronics “back where you bought it” doesn’t guarantee that it won’t end up as e-waste that’s shipped offshore for dismantling and burning in a developing nation (or that your data won’t be stolen by a criminal half a world away).

To make sure that your electronic discards do not end up harming the planet and the poor, BAN urges consumers to use only licensed e-Steward™ recyclers. The e-Stewards have been vetted by BAN and have agreed not to export hazardous electronics despite the profits that can be made by avoiding the real costs of proper domestic recycling.

Ban administers a fully-accredited, 3rd-party-audited certification program to qualify e-Steward Recyclers to meet the world’s most stringent environmental and social justice criteria for the responsible disposal of electronics. These criteria stipulate that no toxic e-waste is dumped in landfills or incinerators, exported to developing countries, or sent to prison labor operations. It also protects against the unauthorized release of data in private computers.

BAN Initiatives

BAN has four major, ongoing initiatives:

  • Definitive Source of Information on Toxic Trade – BAN provides researchers, journalists, and the public with up-to-date information on the toxic waste trade. It serves as the “toxic trade media centre,” providing source materials and published articles. BAN has released groundbreaking research and conducted investigations in developing countries, documenting toxic trade abuses in photos and on film in conjunction with mass media outlets such as CBS 60 Minutes and PBS Frontline.
  • International Policy Advocacy BAN works closely with the United Nations (UN), the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the UNEP Chemicals Program and Governing Council, regularly participating as NGO experts in policy deliberations and other internal meetings. BAN has also produced Model National Legislation on toxic waste trade for developing countries.
  • Research and InvestigationsBAN produces on-the-ground videos and photographs of the toxic waste trade around the world. The organization conducts field investigations and documents their findings. Two documentary films, Exporting Harm and The Digital Dump: Exporting Reuse and Abuse to Africa are available with a donation to BAN.

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  • Campaigns – Through coalitions with other NGOs around the world, BAN engages in effective campaigns to stop the dumping of toxic waste in developing nations.

E-Waste Stewardship Project to stop the importation of e-waste in developing nations and to encourage producer responsibility and green design.

Green Ship-breaking to ensure that all hazardous materials are either processed domestically or removed from all US vessels prior to export and scrapping on foreign shores.

Zero Mercury Campaign to adopt an internationally binding treaty to eliminate mercury pollution — its extraction, use, trade, and recycling — particularly in developing countries.

Basel Ban Ratification – Promoting dual action by the US and other nations to ratify both Ban and the treaty, and to block efforts to undermine the Basel Convention.

For More Information

The Basel Action Network
122 S. Jackson Street, Suite 320
Seattle, WA 98104

BAN is a 501(c) 3 charitable organization of the United States, based in Seattle, Washington.

Caryn Green

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Computer Recycling – The Downside of Upgrading

Part 2: The Basel Convention – Protecting Developing Nations from E-Waste

Part 3: Basel Action Network – Part of the E-Waste Solution (Top of Page)

Part 4: National Cristina Foundation – Connecting Used Technology to Worthy Recipients

Part 5: Electronics TakeBack Coalition Promotes Producer Responsibility

Computer Recycling – The Downside of Upgrading

Computer "recycling" in Ghana. Photo: Accra, Ghana, 2009 ©2009 Basel Action Network (BAN)

You just got a new desktop computer with three times the RAM of that old model you’ve had for – what? Four years? Purchased at a fraction of the cost of the old unit, its processor is remarkably faster and more efficient. It came bundled with an attractive flatscreen monitor and ergonomic keyboard, and the deal even included a photo-quality printer – no charge.

In an era when prices for goods are escalating while product quality seems to be decreasing (“they don’t make ’em like they used to”), electronics equipment is one bright spot on the consumer landscape. The products keep improving, and the prices keep dropping. That flash drive you’re carrying is about the size of a stick of gum, yet it has quadruple the storage capacity of the laptop you were using on the job ten years ago. With all these advancements in the computer arena, why not upgrade?

When Recycling Isn’t Green

The downside of upgrading is disposing of all that old equipment. You can’t sell it, and you can’t give it away. Your local charities and schools won’t accept electronics donations — you’ve checked. So you make the environmentally responsible decision to recycle. Congratulations, you’re living green.

Or are you?

Did you ever suspect that your "recycled" computer would end up like this? Photo: Guiyu, China. May 2008 ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

What if you knew that the obsolete cellphones, TVs, and computers you just recycled with a clear conscience are on their way to a “burn village” in China?

“Most electronics recyclers do not recycle the material at all, but simply throw it into a seagoing container and export it to destinations like China, India and Africa,” said Basel Action Network’s Sarah Westervelt. “In these developing countries, your old computer or TV will be smashed, melted, and burned in highly dangerous and polluting operations by a desperately impoverished and unprotected workforce.”

Not far from Hong Kong, migrant workers spend every day crouching around smoldering heaps of discarded electronics components, inhaling dangerous toxins as they pick through the trash to find bits of precious metal. Others dip circuit boards in vats of sodium cyanide to extract lead, gold, silver or cadmium, then pour the waste solution on the ground, where it leaches into the groundwater.

Families with young children live in shanties surrounded by e-waste. Photo: Guiyu, China. May 2008 ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

Nearby, in a shanty constructed of stacked-up bags of e-waste covered by a plastic tarp, their wives simmer circuit boards over coal fires, extracting lead solder from the computer chips, breathing lead-infused vapors throughout the work day.

They will prepare the family’s meals over those same coal fires while their kids play in toxic-sludge-laden ash rivers containing poisonous levels of heavy metals and polyvinyl chlorides. Exposure to these pollutants causes brain damage, kidney and respiratory disease, miscarriages, birth defects, and cancers.

A young girl prepares food over a field of e-waste, surrounded by toxins. Photo: Guiyu, China. May 2008 ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

This is the scene in Guiyu – the epicenter of the world’s e-waste processing industry. Thousands of impoverished peasant farmers who couldn’t make a living from the land come here to work for what they consider good pay: the equivalent of $8 a day. The fact that the air in town has the highest level of cancer-causing toxins in the world and that 7 out of 10 children have dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstream is just a sacrifice they’ll have to make to earn a decent wage to feed their families.

Jim Puckett, executive director of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) is credited with uncovering the e-waste route to China. An environmental health and justice activist for 22 years, first with Greenpeace and now with BAN, Puckett has traveled extensively — researching, writing, producing films and campaigning against all forms of toxic trade.

He shot the first video footage documenting illegal dumping of Western computers in Guiyu eight years ago, making a return visit with CBS’ 60 Minutes in 2009. On camera, he states that the situation has gotten worse. “I was there first in 2001, and it was shocking enough then. It has gone from very bad to really horrific.”

Cyber Crime

The environment and workers’ safety isn’t all that’s threatened by the e-waste trade – your privacy is at risk. A few years ago, hundreds of millions of tons of e-waste started arriving in West Africa in containers labeled “donations.” And the flow of electronics has increased steadily over the years.

Ash from burned computer parts is piled by a river. Photo: Guiyu, China. May 2008 ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

Dealers sort the trash to salvage working electronics to sell in open-air markets. What they can’t sell, they dump outside Ghana’s largest city in a slum along the banks of the Korle Lagoon, one of the most polluted bodies of water on Earth. There, workers — many of them children — burn off plastic casings, which release harmful toxins, like polyvinylchlorides and PCBs, that they inhale while scavenging the ashes for bits of metal they can sell.

The U.S. State Department lists Ghana as one of the world capitals of cyber crime. Abetted by an infinite supply of “recycled” computer parts unknowingly supplied by well-meaning people like us, identity thieves troll the markets for hard drives that reveal private financial information left behind by the original owners: bank account numbers, credit card information, records of online transactions, it’s all there. They even know what you look like.

This is not what you signed on for when you brought your used electronics to a recycling center and watched a volunteer in white cotton gloves load them on a cart and wheel them away.

Responsible Disposal of E-Waste: Resources

Acid drains away from a shanty where computer parts are stripped for precious metals. Photo: Guiyu, China. May 2008 ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

There are numerous public and private recycling facilities, charitable foundations, not-for-profits and manufacturers throughout the U.S., who are committed to solving the e-waste problem and can be trusted to handle your donated or recycled equipment in the manner you intended. The following organizations maintain websites that provide a wealth of information for locating and qualifying responsible organizations:

Basel Action Network E-Stewards Initiative

The e-Steward™ recyclers are vetted by BAN and have agreed not to export hazardous electronics despite the profits that can be made by avoiding the real costs of proper domestic recycling. BAN is the leading non-government organization (NGO) working with the UN to ratify and enforce the 1992 Basel Convention, a comprehensive global environmental agreement on the movement and disposal of hazardous and other wastes.

Electronics TakeBack Coalition

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC) promotes green design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry by requiring consumer electronics manufacturers and brand owners to take full responsibility for the lifecycle of their products.

National Cristina Foundation

Promoting reuse as the best option for used components, the National Cristina Foundation works to assure that no computer leaving its first place of use is ever wasted, if it can be put back to work again. Its website matches donations with qualified recipients, also providing links to reliable recyclers and a list of questions consumers should ask to qualify potential recyclers.

E-cycling Central

Provides a map to locate reuse, recycling, and donation programs across the country.

Caryn Green

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Computer Recycling – The Downside of Upgrading (Top of Page)

Part 2: The Basel Convention – Protecting Developing Nations from E-Waste

Part 3: Basel Action Network – Part of the E-Waste Solution

Part 4: National Cristina Foundation – Connecting Used Technology to Worthy Recipients

Part 5: Electronics TakeBack Coalition Promotes Producer Responsibility