International e-waste trade

The Basel Convention, the Basel Ban, and the EU WEEE Directive

Electronic waste contains several toxic components. If left untreated, dumped into landfills, or inappropriately dismantled it can generate environmental and health hazards. That’s why it is considered a hazardous waste.

International trade of hazardous waste is regulated by the Basel Convention. At the moment, the Basel Convention does not forbid e-waste trade, but requires an informed consent from the receiving country.

However, an ammendment to the Basel Convention has been proposed that establishes a ban on e-waste trade. It is known as the “Basel Ban”, and it is approved but not in force. The Basel Ban would forbid toxic waste trade (including e-waste) from some “rich countries” (those that belong to the OECD, the EU, and Liechtenstein, included in the “Annex VII” of the Basel Convention) to the rest of the world.

Althought the Basel Ban is not in force, most of those Annex VII countries have introduced the ban into their legislation. The USA are a notable exception. The EU, however, has integrated the Basel Ban in its WEEE Directive, and therefore exporting e-waste from the EU is illegal if the receiving countries don’t have proper recycling capacity.

The UK, following the framework presented above, is currently prosecuting Nigerian computer trader Joe Benson. He has been taken to prison accused of illegally exporting e-waste, even though he had all permissions needed and he was exporting working items. However, he might be used by the authorities to show in public that they chase e-waste exports.

Criticism

There is an increasing criticism of the Basel Ban approach in the academic literature. One important argument is that e-waste trade does not happen anymore from Annex VII countries to the rest, as it might have been the case in the past. Nowadays, as Lepawsky explains, the e-waste trade has become much more complex, from many countries to many others, and therefore a ban only from Annex VII countries to the rest would not solve the problem.

The increase of local e-waste, which is overtaking the volumen traded in, is another important argument against the effectivity of the ban. Many more countries have now access to electronics, and the generation of local e-waste is not going to be solved by a trade ban. On top of that, the trade of second-hand computers is allowed, and those will become e-waste sooner or later. Therefore the problem is not solved, just postponed for a few years.

One last argument is about reuse. Most of the computers arriving in Ghana, for instance, are working or repairable (up to 85% of them). This is positive as it creates a local economy of repair, and offers affordable computers (some countries can’t afford new computers). In environmental terms, it’s also positive to extend the lifetime of computers, no matter where in the world it happens. However, there is no proper recycling capacity in many places.