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SARID, December 5, 2006

We constantly hear that computers and other electronic devices are environment-friendly; that they are made in clean factories and that email saves trees.

But high tech products are not small and harmless. They are manufactured like any other industrial artifact, which includes the mining of the dangerous metals (such as lead, cadmium and mercury) and the fabrication of the plastics they contain - not to mention the fossil fuels needed for transportation.

The electronic and information technology is the largest and fastest growing manufacturing sector in the world. The devices it spawns are unusual and worrying because they have ever-shortening life spans coupled to ever-increasing numbers and low recycling rates.

The result is electronic waste or “e-waste”, up to 50 million metric tons of which, estimates the United Nations, are generated annually worldwide due to the growing demand for new computers, mobile phones, TVs and other consumer electronics. Many of these products are soon discarded because they are deemed to be obsolete or defunct.

Much of the electronic waste from developed nations such as the United States, the EU and Japan is dumped in developing countries, including China, India and Pakistan, where it poses serious health risks to those, including under age children, who handle it.

After a week-long conference in Nairobi on the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, delegates pledged to introduce pilot projects to take back used electronic products and to strengthen collaborative efforts to fight illegal traffickers.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said it is important that governments develop more effective regulatory regimes so that the market has incentives to respond more positively to the issue of electronic waste.

The Basel Convention was adopted in March 1989 and regulates the movement of hazardous wastes. So far 169 countries have ratified the Convention, a global treaty drafted in 1989 that aims to prevent hazardous wastes from being dumped in the developing world (wastes exported for re-use and recycling are allowed under the treaty however).

It obliges members to ensure that such wastes are managed in an environmentally sound manner. Governments are expected to minimize the quantities that are transported, to treat and dispose of wastes as close as possible to where they were generated, and to minimize the generation of hazardous waste at source.

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United Nations Environmental Programme (
Emagazine (



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