E-waste

November 02, 2005

You know that old useless computer that's been sitting around your house for months, waiting to be trashed or given to a charity? It could become part of the fastest-growing stream of waste in the industrialized world - a toxic stream that, a recent study confirmed, can end in Third World dumping grounds.

Various consumer electronics often are laced with as much as several pounds of lead, cadmium and other toxic materials. With about 60 million computers deemed obsolete each year in the United States and an estimated 300,000 tons of such potentially hazardous e-waste ending up in landfills, computer recycling is a big growth industry - with manufacturers and private contractors collecting the old equipment.

However, many of these units are not being recycled or repaired but dumped overseas. The Basel Action Network, of Seattle, previously reported that more than 50 percent of U.S. e-waste is being sent to such developing nations as China and India for unregulated disposal. BAN's most recent investigation shows that as many as 500 containers - about 400,000 discarded computers - enter Lagos, Nigeria, every month, sold by unscrupulous U.S. contractors who have collected them for repair or recycling. As much as 75 percent of these loads amount to junk that ends up rotting or burned in digital dumps (sometimes with private or government information still on their hard drives).

This practice would violate the worldwide Basel Convention barring transnational shipments of hazardous waste - if the equipment had been tested prior to shipping from the United States and found to be unrepairable waste and if the United States had ratified that international pact. One hundred and sixty-five nations have done so; the United States is the only developed nation not to have ratified it.

Across this country, states and communities are getting more aggressive about keeping computer equipment out of landfills. Maryland became one of the national leaders in computer recycling this year with a new law that will require computer manufacturers to pay $5,000 annually if they don't have effective recycling programs to which consumers can return used equipment; the fees will help Maryland counties pay for recycling programs. Such local measures are a critical part of the solution here.

But even with that, the United States must put an end to offshore dumping of e-waste. It must ratify the Basel Convention and enforce that commitment with inspections of transnational shippers of computer electronics. If it's too toxic for U.S. landfills, foreign dumps aren't an acceptable alternative.

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