e-Waste: New global trade restrictions

The Parties to the Basel Convention at their 15th meeting (COP15) held in Geneva agreed by consensus to the "Swiss-Ghana Amendments," establishing new definitions of hazardous and non-hazardous electronic waste, and ensured that both of these two categories of e-waste will either be banned from trade or at a minimum require notification by the exporting country and consent by the importing country prior to export.
Vietnamese women sorting non-hazardous electronics and appliance waste. Copyright Basel Action Network.

“e-Waste exports, particularly to developing countries, typically result in environmental harm even when the material is deemed non-hazardous,” said Jim Puckett, Executive Director of Basel Action Network (BAN), the organization that first discovered the global e-waste dumping nightmare in China and Africa in 2001 and 2005. “Due to the deadly emissions created when e-Waste is processed thermally or in primitive acid stripping operations, this new agreement will go a long way towards protecting the environment and human health worldwide.”

However, to protect legitimate recycling, BAN was instrumental, however, in ensuring that the new amendments exempted e-waste that is pre-processed in the exporting country to a safe, non-hazardous concentrate of metals or plastics already listed on the Basel non-hazardous list (Annex IX). This enables more electronics to be recycled into commodity-grade secondary resources rather than thrown into landfills or incinerators.

The new rules will go into force January 1, 2025, and follow by a few years a similar agreement for mixed and contaminated plastics. Aprt from the obvious environmental and health benefit, they are expected also to make e-waste trade enforcement all over the world much easier, as customs and environmental border officials will not have to undertake expensive testing in most cases to determine hazardousness.

Additionally, while most e-waste trade will require notification and consent, it is important to note that because the United States is not a Party to the Convention, importing countries that are Parties to the Basel Convention will not be allowed to receive US e-waste without a special bilateral or multilateral agreement establishing an equivalent level of control. Similarly, because the new listing for non-hazardous e-waste is on Annex II of the Convention and the European Union has included Annex II in its export prohibition to developing countries, exports of e-wastes to developing countries from EU countries will be banned outright.

Despite the passage of these new controls at the COP15 meeting, there remains one major loophole promoted heavily by Electronics Manufacturers, which BAN and many developing countries seek to close: the so-called “repairables loophole” found in a Basel guideline on the transboundary movement of e-waste, adopted currently only on an interim basis. This guideline currently allows exporters to avoid the Convention’s rules altogether if they claim that the exports are to be repaired. At the COP15 meeting, 22 developing countries took the floor to demand that more work be done on this section of the guidelines, having to do with when e-waste is a waste and when it is not. Many Parties wish to base the definition on functionality. This will now be the thrust of continued negotiations starting next year.

“While everyone realizes the that repair plays an important role, it cannot be used as free ticket to export all manner of wastes on an empty claim and thereby hide from the Basel rules of the road. This opens the barn door to all manner of exploitive waste trade business,” said Puckett. “BAN, along with developing countries, aims to close that final loophole to prevent abuse in the name of reuse.”


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