Basel launches partnership on waste computer shipments

Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Sony signed up to an "e2e" partnership on computers and the environment in June. Established under the UN Basel Convention on the control of waste shipments, the partnership seeks to tackle issues arising from the increasing transfer of used equipment to developing countries.

Due to be launched in October, the project comes two years after a similar partnership was set up on mobile phones. This has since enlisted manufacturers including Sony Ericsson, Samsung, Motorola, NEC, Siemens, LG, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Vodafone and Alcatel. UK phone refurbisher Shields Environmental is also a sponsor.

The partnerships aim to create adequate infrastructure and expertise in non-OECD countries to deal with waste electronics. But in pursuing the initiatives, the Convention secretariat has found itself in the curious position of playing down the "hazardous waste" connotations inherent in its work in order to avoid putting off corporate partners.

Environmental group Basel Action Network has called for an explicit recognition that non-working mobile phones are classified as hazardous waste under the convention's definitions.

This would prohibit their transfer to non-OECD countries for recycling and recovery under the terms of a 1994 amendment to the Basel convention. Although the amendment has yet to be ratified by enough countries to bring it into legal force, the EU has already applied it through an amendment to its Regulation on waste shipments.

BAN argues that such clarity is necessary to strengthen awareness at border controls and among governments over the potential risks posed by electronic waste.

But the group's Jim Puckett conceded that recognising mobile phones as hazardous waste will do nothing to stop the practice of transferring functional phones with an extremely short lifetime. Neither would it necessarily prevent ongoing practices such as mixing functional and non-functional phones in shipments.

In a few minutes' searching on the Internet it is possible to identify several companies in Nigeria, India and the Dominican Republic seeking "unlimited" supplies of used mobile phones of any brand. It is equally easy to find companies from the UK and other nations offering such supplies.

The trade is welcomed by both developed and developing countries in appropriate circumstances. The transfer of well refurbished computer equipment is encouraged by the UN under formal not-for-profit schemes described as "bridging the digital divide".

They aim to enable poorer economies to catch up on their technological infrastructure. Mobile phones provide a lifeline to countries which do not have the resources to set up and maintain a land-line infrastructure.

But Mr Puckett feels that greater awareness of hazardous waste issues is crucial, given the increasing trade in used equipment. A particular concern, he said, is that the EU Directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), which requires producers to take back and recycle phones, computers and other goods, will exacerbate existing problems.

"WEEE will increase the pressure for illegal exports to non-OECD countries," Mr Puckett said. He is also worried that used equipment will flow to the new EU members which, he says, are not ready to handle it.

BAN wants mobile phone manufacturers to be obliged to take on responsibility for their products, even if they end up outside the EU. In April, manufacturers participating in the mobile phone initiative were urged to accept such an "extended producer responsibility" role.

Mats Pellback-Scharp, director of health, safety and environment at Sony Ericsson, said companies were ready to take responsibility for their phones - but he added that so must those who refurbish and resell them.

There is a real issue, he said, over responsibility for equipment further down the chain once original manufacturers have collected and passed it on. "This is also a problem within the EU under WEEE, not just for export overseas."