Fairphone posted a blog piece on their recent trip to Ghana – thanks to Raluca Radu, a former student of mine, for keeping me updated. The piece and accompanying photos make very sober reading, highlighting the realities of WEEE export to this part of the world. Not that one is not aware of it. However it is very worthwhile to keep being reminded! Fairphone’s project in Ghana, though, is also novel in highlighting the challenge of toxic waste produced in Africa, not just imported there. Finally, the posting (and comments) underline the challenges of all three pillars of sustainable development. Plenty of challenges therefore however it is great to see people trying!
Many thanks to Gideon Kracov for pointing this out to me: the proposed Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (a private member’s Bill) would install an EU-type regime on the export of electric and electronic waste outside of the US. The US have signed but not ratified the Basel Convention : RERA would amount to implementation of the Convention in practice. The Bill also recognises the relevance of recovering the many rare earth materials contained in WEEE.
Here’s the blurb (the official summary of the Bill, in fact):
Introduced in House (07/23/2013)
Responsible Electronics Recycling Act – Amends the Solid Waste Disposal Act to: (1) prohibit the export of restricted electronic waste to countries that are not members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or the European Union (EU), or Liechtenstein; (2) require the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop and promulgate procedures for identifying certain electronic equipment as well as additional restricted toxic materials contained in such equipment which poses a potential hazard to human health or the environment; and (3) establish criminal penalties for knowingly exporting restricted electronic waste in violation of this Act. Allows certain exceptions to such export ban.
Defines “restricted electronic waste” to include electronic equipment (excluding parts of a motor vehicle), such as computers, televisions, printers, copiers, video game systems, telephones, and similar used electronic products, that contain cathode ray tubes, batteries, switches, and other parts containing lead, cadmium, mercury, organic solvents, hexavalent chromium, beryllium, or other toxic ingredients.
Requires persons who handle restricted electronic wastes to permit appropriate EPA and state officials access to such wastes upon request.
Directs the Secretary of Energy to establish a competitive research application program to provide grants for research in the recovering and recycling of critical minerals and rare earth elements found in electronic devices.
When teaching International Environmental Law, I tend to at some point in the proceedings have the students ponder Lawrence Summers’ 1992 ‘Let them eat pollution‘ memo. It is a document most wonderful to teach basic economics, internalisation (or lack thereof) of externalities, morality in international trade, comparative advantage etc etc. As well as some history (remember Marie Antoinette, anyone?) and the myths surrounding quotes (qu’ils mangent de la brioche).
The EU have recently decided no longer to let developing countries recycle EU-registered ships through ‘beaching’: basically, one towes a discarded ship, typically with plenty of toxic substances on board or integrated in the ship’s build, unto a beach in a developing country, where subsequently the ship is dismantled without much regard to environmental control of occupational health and safety issues.
The long struggle to regulate the trade is a good example of the challenges of positive harmonisation in international environmental law. For instance, the definition of ‘waste’ as applied to a disused ship long differed between the EU (waste as soon as it is no longer used for its original purpose), the International maritime organisation (no waste as long as it can float) and the Basel Convention (reference to ‘discard’ and to national law). The 2009 Hong Kong Convention aims to address the challenges. This Convention has now been implemented by the EU, who have reportedly ‘gold plated’ it: i.e. the EU have gone beyond what is required under the Convention.
Some details of the scheme may be found here (Irish Presidency of the EU) – the text itself is not yet available. The regime uses a core element of the regime of the Basel Convention on the transboundary shipments of hazardous wastes and their disposal: i.e. employ export authorities in the ‘developed’ world, to only allow exports to ‘developing’ countries when conditions in the latter are deemed sufficiently safe from the workers’ and the environment’s point of view. In the case of the ship recycling regime, this is done by only allowing export of EU-flagged waste ships if they are to be dismantled in facilities that have been approved by the EU.
Plenty of complications remain: this includes the compatibility of the regime with the Basel Convention, and with international trade law; the problem of enforcement and inspection; and the possibility of circumvention by switching flag state.
Geert. Postscript July 2014: the Regulation was eventually adopted as Regulation 1257/2013.