Call to stop trade in toxic e-waste

The international system intended to stop illegal hazardous waste exports is not working, the head of a UK watchdog has warned.

In a speech last week to INTERPOL, the UK Environment Agency chair Lord Smith called for a European alliance to tackle the toxic trade in electrical waste into Africa. He said better cooperation and exchange of intelligence across national borders was necessary to stop a crime that poses a “growing and persistent risk to human health and the environment”.

According Lord Smith, the Environment Agency currently provides criminal intelligence on illegal waste exports to 46 countries but has so far received intelligence from only 10 countries in return. The Environment Agency believes the illegal export of electrical waste – such as TV, laptops and mobile phones – is the single biggest growth area in environmental crime. Despite 50 million tonnes of e-waste being generated annually worldwide, it says only 10 per cent is being recycled.

“Electrical waste contains toxins including mercury, arsenic and lead, and the health of children in the developing world is being put at risk when this waste is illegally exported and then burnt to recover the valuable metals inside,” Lord Smith said. “Not only are children being exploited and their health put at risk when they carry out this work, but the toxins are also contaminating air, land and water.”

Lord Smith indicated the INTERPOL E-Waste Crime Group would only work if there was more effective exchange of information across borders.

The international Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC) estimates over 1,000 materials, including chlorinated solvents, brominated flame retardants, PVC, heavy metals, plastics and gases, are used to make electronic products and their components—semiconductor chips, circuit boards, and disk drives.

It adds that a computer screen can contain between four and eight pounds of lead alone. Big screen TVs contain even more than that. Flat panel TVs and monitors contain less lead, but use mercury lamps. About 40 per cent of the heavy metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium, in landfills come from electronic equipment discards.

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