Saturday, July 5, 2008


Preventing the Digital
Dump: Ending “Re-use Abuse”
Today, as electronics consumption skyrockets and obsolescence
renders equipment useless in a matter of a few short
years, we are increasingly faced with mountains of toxic
electronic waste. For a variety of motivations, both good and
bad, this e-waste is increasingly sold and exported from rich
developed countries to developing countries for the stated
purpose of re-use. Such re-use exports have been touted as a
means to bridge the “digital divide” and satisfy the great desire
and need in the developing world to become a part of the
information age through access to information technology.
However there is a very ugly side to this “re-use” trade as well
and it is time that we begin to be able to tell the difference.
Re-use: The Good
Re-use, directly or via repair or refurbishment is usually the
preferable option over recycling and disposal from an
environmental perspective. Re-use can extend product life and
means less environmentally damaging extraction, less energy
consumption, less waste. Re-use of second-hand equipment
can also often mean a lower price for products, thus increasing
accessibility for more people who might not otherwise be able to
afford the product. But, as shall be shown, these worthy goals
alone, without a good measure of “responsibility” backed up by
law, can perversely become, instead of a bridge over the digital
divide, a highway to a “digital dump.”
Re-use: The Bad
In late 2005, BAN conducted an extensive 10-day investigation
in Lagos, Nigeria to better understand the burgeoning reuse/
repair trade. That investigation revealed a major and
growing influx of e-scrap that was not being controlled by the
Basel Convention despite the fact that as much as 75% of the
material was strictly waste, as all or part of it could not be
repaired or re-used even in a country with excellent and
affordable electronic engineers. Consequently this toxic ewaste
was simply dumped and burned in waysides in Lagos,
leading to serious environmental and health impacts.
We fear that what we documented in the report and film The
Digital Dump represents just the first ripple of a tsunami of such
re-use exports, which are often cloaked by the seeming intent of
“helping the poor” and exploiting an arena of trade which has
not been well controlled by customs authorities. Already
journalists now are finding similar scenes in other African ports.
The glimpse at how this trade really occurs today has led us to
the following unfortunate conclusions:
• Without mandatory testing and controls, “re-use” can
be a pretext (intentionally or not) for exporting junk and
give legitimate re-use a bad name. Most e-waste is
hazardous by definition and the Basel Convention is meant
to control the export of hazardous waste. But with “re-use”
destinations creating illusions of good intent and legal
ambiguity, enforcement has not been as diligent as
necessary. Mandatory testing, certification and labeling are
a necessity to remedy this “disguise” effect.
• Export for repair can involve export for disposal:
Export for repair can involve immediate disposal of
hazardous parts when bad parts are replaced. Thus by
Basel definitions (Art. 1, Annexes I, III and IV), export for
repair can involve transboundary movement of hazardous
waste. Testing then is necessary prior to export.
• Re-use is a less preferable waste management option
for a technology that undergoes rapid obsolescence:
The “digital divide” cannot be defined by the difference
between those with computers (no matter how old) and
those without, but rather by those with state-of-art
computers and those without. A hand-me-down solution to
the problem of the “digital divide,” then, will never
completely eliminate the gap. And due to the very rapid
obsolescence of IT technology today, this gap occurs very
rapidly. Seen in this light, it is not always so charitable to
provide hand-me-down technology which will become
outdated in but a few years, particularly when that
technology carries with it a substantial environmental
burden. This is particularly true when weighed against
other policy options, such as demanding toxics use
reductions and investing in indigenous IT industries in
developing countries.
• Exporting toxic equipment for re-use to poorer
consumers equates to “passing the toxic buck” and
environmental injustice: If the solution of handing-down
toxic technology from rich to poor becomes the norm on
this finite planet known for its very inequitable economic
turn back the toxic tide
geography, a very convenient world is created for some. In
this world, in effect, the rich northern countries most
capable of managing a hazardous waste problem can
wash their hands of the global toxic burden for electronic
waste by passing it to countries least able to deal with the
problem. This would create a world where global pollution
burdens from certain industrial sectors would effectively be
transferred to the producers and last users – the lowwaged
poor. Indeed, even if, by some miracle, developing
countries had the very best waste management
technologies, such management is not without substantial
risk to human health and the environment and entails
sacrifice of land and air to accomplish waste management.
It is the very definition of environmental justice that
developing countries or poorer communities should not
receive a disproportionate global toxic burden.
Re-use: The Illegal
Much of the e-scrap that is exported today is not being
controlled as a Basel waste despite the fact that it falls well
within Basel definitions. Some claim that if the material is
destined for re-use, repair or refurbishment it is a product and
not a waste. Yet this is not likely to be true.
Direct Re-Use Does Not Fall under Basel if Tested. Certainly,
direct re-use (without any work or processing required) does not
involve Annex IV recycling or disposal operations. Thus, used
electronic equipment that is functioning and is intended for direct
re-use is not considered to be a waste, regardless of whether it
is hazardous or not. However, from a regulatory point of view,
this is not ascertainable without testing, certification and labeling
to assure and make transparent that a) the material functions
as-is and b) that it is destined for a re-use destination.
Repair and Refurbishment. While the word “repair” or
“refurbishment” does not appear in the Annex IV lists, this does
not mean that such equipment is non-waste. In fact, very often
materials sent for repair or refurbishment will, in part, move to
Annex IV operations, when the repair or refurbishment requires
that a hazardous part of the equipment be replaced and the old
part is disposed of/recycled while the rest of the equipment is reused.
Thus, it is clear that repair and refurbishment are very
likely to involve a recycling or disposal destinations.
The logic of considering a hazardous, non-functioning part that
must be replaced during repair as a Basel-controlled waste
becomes clear when looked at in another way. Exporting a nonfunctioning
circuit board by itself destined for recycling is clearly
a hazardous waste export. Yet this is very much the same as
exporting a hazardous, non-functioning circuit board as part of a
computer sent for so-called repair/refurbishment. In both cases
a waste circuit board is involved in a transboundary movement.
The MPPI Guidance Document’s Decision Tree
Annexes VIII and IX were meant to help determine which
wastes streams possess Annex I constituents and are likely to
possess an Annex III characteristic. Unfortunately, footnote 13
of Annex IX in defining electronics re-use (“to include repair,
refurbishment, upgrading, but not major reassembly”) caused
more confusion than solutions. This was the subject which the
Mobile Phone Partnership Initiative (MPPI)’s working group on
Collection and Transboundary Movement addressed.
One of the results of that work is a procedure to apply the Basel
Convention by use of the Decision Tree below. In sum the
Decision Tree indicates that whenever a hazardous part is
replaced during the repair or refurbishment operation then
the export of the used equipment to that operation must fall
under the Basel control procedures.
MPPI Decision Tree for Exports for Re-use Following Repair
Conclusion: Testing and Labeling Prior to Export
Must be Part of Diligent Enforcement
It is clear that it has become far too easy for waste brokers
to simply make a claim of re-use and all manner of useless
junk can then be exported while customs officials are
forced to simply take their word for it. That has got to stop!
Use of the MPPI Decision Tree Procedure is the only proper
way to implement the Basel Convention with respect to
export of used electronic equipment.
The Basel Action Network
C/O Earth Economics
122 S. Jackson St., Suite 320
Seattle, WA. 98104
Phone: 1.206.652.5555, Fax: 1.206.652.5750
E-mail:, Website:

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