Basel Convention to require informed consent for e-waste exports

At the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention (BC COP15), amendments were agreed to establish new definitions of hazardous and non-hazardous electronic waste. They will also ensure that 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.

The changes are expected to come into force on 1 January 2025, titled the ‘Swiss-Ghana Amendments’.

While most e-waste trade will require notification and consent, importing countries that are parties to the Basel Convention will not be allowed to receive US e-waste, as the country is not a party to the Convention. The only exception will be a special bilateral or multilateral agreement establishing an equivalent level of control.

Additionally, as 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.

Prior to this change, only hazardous waste electricals and electronic equipment (WEEE) required prior informed consent. In amending Annexes II, VIII, and IX, the parties aim to protect ‘vulnerable countries from unwanted imports’ as well as adopting ‘environmentally sound management of e-wastes’ with new technology, contributing to a circular economy.

Alongside environmental and health benefits, the amendments are also expected to simplify the global e-waste trade due to customs and environmental border officials not having to undertake, in most cases, expensive testing to determine hazardousness.

The new rules will be followed, after a few years, by a similar agreement for mixed and contaminated plastics.

The Basel Action Network (BAN), an NGO working to combat hazardous e-waste exports to developing countries, initially discovered the issues generated through global e-waste dumping in China and Africa in 2001 and 2005.

The NGO’s work was ‘instrumental’ in exempting e-waste that is ‘pre-processed in the exporting to a safe, non-hazardous concentrate of metals and plastics’ from the amendments, which it says will ‘protect legitimate recycling.’

BAN states that this exemption will enable a greater number of electronics to be recycled into ‘commodity-grade secondary resources’ rather than thrown into landfills or incinerators.

In a statement, the NGO stressed the need to close the ‘repairables loophole’, which is currently promoted heavily by the electronics manufacturers. 

This loophole is the product of an interim Basel guideline that allows exporters to avoid the Convention’s rules altogether if they claim that the exports are to be repaired and sign a contract to that effect.

At COP15, 22 developing countries urged that more work should be done on this section of the guidelines, to better define when e-waste is explicity waste material and when it is not. Many parties wished to base the definition on functionality, and not repairability. This will now be included in continued negotiations, starting next year.

Jim Puckett, Executive Director of Basel Action Network (BAN), said: “E-waste exports, particularly to developing countries, typically result in environmental harm even when the material is deemed non-hazardous.

“Due to the deadly emissions created when e-waste is processed thermally or in primitive acid stripping operations, the new agreement will go a long way towards protecting the environment and human health worldwide.

“While everyone realises that repair plays an important role, it cannot be used as a free ticket to export all manner of wastes which might never be repaired or might leave hazardous discarded parts. This would leave open the barn door to exploitive waste traders with no possibility for enforcement.

“BAN, along with developing countries, aim to close that final loophole to prevent this kind of abuse in the name of reuse.”

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