Sunday, November 18, 2007

Pollution Havens: Evidence from China

Is Free Trade good for your environmental exposure? This is an interesting case study. It claims that U.S electronic waste is heading to China because it is cheaper to dispose of it over there. It also claims that this would be less of an issue if nations ratified the Basel Convention. Will the next President ratify this treaty?

According to Wikipedia;

"The Basel Convention (verbose: Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal) is an international treaty that was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries (LDCs). It does not, however, address the movement of radioactive waste. The Convention is also intended to minimize the amount and toxicity of wastes generated, to ensure their environmentally sound management as closely as possible to the source of generation, and to assist LDCs in environmentally sound management of the hazardous and other wastes they generate.

The Convention was opened for signature on March 22, 1989, and entered into force on May 5, 1992. A list of parties to the Convention, and their ratification status, can be found on the Basel Secretariat's web page. Of the 170 parties to the Convention, Afghanistan, Haiti, and the United States have signed the Convention but have not yet ratified it."

What is the enforcement mechanism for this convention? For nations that violates its laws, does the United Nations' invade?

Enforcement is central to the effective implementation of the Basel Convention. Although it may seem a straightforward activity, it happens to be rather complex because of its multidimensional requirements. There is a need for a proper infrastructure, adequate staffing of trained personnel, appropriate logistical support and knowledge of hazardous wastes. From an operational point of view, a properly integrated national enforcement programme would include: tracking of hazardous waste shipments; visits to company sites (and other sites); transport control/checks/inspections; sampling and testing; information exchange. A number of basic criteria are required to fulfill the aims of the Basel Convention. These are:The existence of a regulatory infrastructure and enforcement that ensures compliance with applicable regulations;•Sites or facilities (including storage) are authorized and of an adequate standard of technology and pollution control to dispose of the hazardous waste in the way proposed, in particular taking into account the level of technology and pollution control in the exporting country;•Operators of sites or facilities at which hazardous wastes are disposed are required, as appropriate, to monitor the effects of those activities;•Action is taken at the site or facility in the case of accidental spillage, and in cases where monitoring gives indication that the disposal of hazardous wastes have resulted in unacceptable emissions;•Persons involved in the disposal of hazardous wastes are capable and adequately trained;•Any residues from the recovery of hazardous wastes and portions of unrecovered materials should be managed in an environmentally sound manner, including final disposal;•Evidence of an action plan for emergencies or accidents covering the disposal operations.To be operational, enforcement personnel (competent authorities; police; customs officers; port or airport authorities, coast guards) need to be trained in the following technical areas:•identification of hazardous wastes;•knowledge of companies' operations;•knowledge of the United Nations Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods (all modes of transport);•understanding of laboratory results on sampling and testing;
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•familiarities with Notification and Movement Document, tracking documents, permits, contracts, financial guarantees;•statistical information and processing of data provided by the World Customs Organization;•identification of cases of illegal traffic. Because of lack of manpower or lack of trained enforcement personnel or equipment, a number of activities may be the source of difficulties, such as:•tracking down of illegal shipments;•development of practical guidelines for sampling liquid and solid hazardous wastes that could be harmonized at regional level;•agreement on which hazardous wastes to be monitored as a matter of priority;•thorough company visits;•way of getting up-to-date information on active movements of hazardous wastes;•time necessary for analysing samples, interpretation of laboratory results. As part of its functions, the Secretariat of the Basel Convention is providing, upon request, assistance to countries in the field of enforcement. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT THE SECRETARIAT OF THE BASEL CONVENTION: 15, chemin des Anemones CH-1219 Chatelaine, SwitzerlandTel: (41 22) 979 92 18 Fax: (41 22) 797 34 54 E-mail:

China's e-waste nightmare worsening By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN, Associated Press Writer
1 hour, 49 minutes ago

The air smells acrid from the squat gas burners that sit outside homes, melting wires to recover copper and cooking computer motherboards to release gold. Migrant workers in filthy clothes smash picture tubes by hand to recover glass and electronic parts, releasing as much as 6.5 pounds of lead dust.

For five years, environmentalists and the media have highlighted the danger to Chinese workers who dismantle much of the world's junked electronics. Yet a visit to this southeastern Chinese town regarded as the heartland of "e-waste" disposal shows little has improved. In fact, the problem is growing worse because of China's own contribution.

China now produces more than 1 million tons of e-waste each year, said Jamie Choi, a toxics campaigner with Greenpeace China in Beijing. That adds up to roughly 5 million television sets, 4 million fridges, 5 million washing machines, 10 million mobile phones and 5 million personal computers, according to Choi.

"Most e-waste in China comes from overseas, but the amount of domestic e-waste is on the rise," he said.

This ugly business is driven by pure economics. For the West, where safety rules drive up the cost of disposal, it's as much as 10 times cheaper to export the waste to developing countries. In China, poor migrants from the countryside willingly endure the health risks to earn a few yuan, exploited by profit-hungry entrepreneurs.

International agreements and European regulations have made a dent in the export of old electronics to China, but loopholes — and sometimes bribes — allow many to skirt the requirements. And only a sliver of the electronics sold get returned to manufacturers such as Dell and Hewlett Packard for safe recycling.

Upwards of 90 percent ends up in dumps that observe no environmental standards, where shredders, open fires, acid baths and broilers are used to recover gold, silver, copper and other valuable metals while spewing toxic fumes and runoff into the nation's skies and rivers.

Accurate figures about the shady and unregulated trade are hard to come by. However, experts agree that it is overwhelmingly a problem of the developing world. They estimate about 70 percent of the 20-50 million tons of electronic waste produced globally each year is dumped in China, with most of the rest going to India and poor African nations.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it is ten times cheaper to export e-waste than to dispose of it at home.

Imports slip into China despite a Chinese ban and Beijing's ratification of the Basel Convention, an international agreement that outlaws the trade. Industry monitor Ted Smith said one U.S. exporter told him all that was needed to get shipments past Chinese customs officials was a crisp $100 bill taped to the inside of each container.

"The central government is well aware of the problems but has been unable or unwilling to really address it," said Smith, senior strategist with the California-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, which focuses on the electronics industry.

The European Union bans such exports, but Smith and others say smuggling is rife, largely due to the lack of measures to punish rule breakers. China, meanwhile, allows the import of plastic waste and scrap metal, which many recyclers use as an excuse to send old electronics there.

And though U.S. states increasingly require that electronics be sent to collection and recycling centers, even from those centers, American firms can send the e-waste abroad legally because Congress hasn't ratified the Basel Convention.

The results are visible on the streets of Guiyu, where the e-waste industry employs an estimated 150,000 people. Shipping containers of computer parts, old video games, computer screens, cell phones and electronics of all kinds, from ancient to nearly new, are dumped onto the streets and sorted for dismantling and melting.

Valuable metals such as copper, gold, and silver are removed through melting and acid baths, while steel is torn out for scrap and plastic is ground into pellets for other use.

This is big business for those who control the trade. Luxury sedans are parked in front of elaborate mansions in downtown Guiyu, adorned with fancy names such as "Hall of Southernly Peace."

Many of those who do the dirty work are migrants from poorer parts of China, too desperate or uninformed to care about the health risks.

In the town of Nanyang, a few minutes drive from Guiyu, a middle-aged couple from the inland province of Hunan sorts wiring in a mud-floored shack. Such work, including melting down motherboards, earns them about $100 per month, said the husband, who answered reluctantly and wouldn't give his name.

Many houses double as smelter and home. Gas burners shaped like blacksmith's forges squat beside the front doors, their flues rising several stories to try to dissipate the toxic smoke.

Nonetheless, a visitor soon develops a throbbing headache and metallic taste in the mouth. The groundwater has long been too polluted for human consumption. The amount of lead in the river sediment is double European safety levels, according to the Basel Action Network, an environmental group.

Yet, aside from trucking in drinking water, the health risks seem largely ignored. Fish are still raised in local ponds, and piles of ash and plastic waste sit beside rice paddies and dikes holding in the area's main Lianjiang river.

Chemicals, including mercury, fluorine, barium, chromium, and cobalt, that either leach from the waste or are used in processing, are blamed for skin rashes and respiratory problems. Contamination can take decades to dissipate, experts say, and long-term health effects can include kidney and nervous system damage, weakening of the immune system and cancer.

"Of course, recycling is more environmentally sound," said Wu Song, a former local university student who has studied the area. "But I wouldn't really call what's happening here recycling."

Those who control the business in Guiyu are hostile to outside scrutiny. Reporters visiting the area with a Greenpeace volunteer were trailed by tough-looking youths who notified local police, leading to a six-hour detention for questioning.

Government departments from the provincial to township levels refused to answer questions. The central government's Environmental Protection Agency did not reply to faxed questions.

Guiyu faces growing competition from other cities, notably Taizhou, about 450 miles up the coast in Zhejiang province. Meanwhile, collection yards have sprung up on the fringes of most major cities. The owners sell what they can to recyclers — most of them unregulated — and simply dump the rest.

Efforts to recycle e-waste safely in China have struggled. Few people bring in waste, because the illegal operators pay more.

"We're not even breaking even," said Gao Jian, marketing director of New World Solid Waste in the northeastern city of Qingdao. "These guys pay more because they don't need expensive equipment, but their methods are really dangerous."

The city of Shanghai opened a dedicated e-waste handling center last year, but most residents and companies prefer the "guerrilla" junkers who ride through neighborhoods on flatbed tricycles ringing bells to attract customers, said Yu Jinbiao of the Shanghai Electronic Products Repair Service Association, a government-backed industry federation.

"Those guerrillas are convenient and offer a good price," Yu said, "so there is a big market for them."