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Through the BASEL Convention, Tech Works on Sustainability

Over the past decade, the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) has led global tech sector engagement in Basel Convention negotiations on used and waste electronics. The mission of the Basel Convention – a multi-lateral treaty ratified by over 180 countries (“Parties”) – is to protect human health and promote environmentally-sound outcomes by controlling the cross-border movement of hazardous and other wastes. While the Convention’s primary focus remains on controlling hazardous waste shipments, the Parties – spurred to action by global e-waste concerns – are also tackling the complex issue of used products and parts.

Basel negotiations on electronics are a priority for ITI member companies and for companies in ITI’s Environmental Leadership Council. The tech sector has been a major stakeholder throughout these formal negotiations, and we currently serve as formal Observers on the Basel Expert Working Group on the Technical Guidelines on Electronics. In 2015, the Parties adopted the Guidelines “on an interim basis,” while recognizing that additional work was required on a short list of open issues. The interim Guidelines explicitly recognize that, under strict and defined conditions, even non-functioning used products and parts can move across international borders to proper assessment and repair facilities. Many governments are taking steps to align their legal frameworks, policies, and practices with the widely-endorsed Guidelines.

The Expert Working Group convened in January in Beijing to advance consensus on several outstanding issues in the Guidelines. Tech sent 6 observers to the negotiations, representing sector associations in Australia, Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia and the United States. Manufacturer representatives from the medical device and automotive sectors also participated in the negotiations, as did representatives of the global recycling community.

In Beijing, the tech sector emphasized that we are committed to complying with national measures governing the import and export of used equipment and e-waste. We also reiterated that the sector shares two primary objectives with global governments:

  1. Preventing shipments of waste electronics from being sent to countries or to facilities that lack the means to properly manage them. While volumes of electronics are being safely recycled in authorized facilities, the mismanagement of devices for materials recovery – including open-pit burning and the use of acids and solvents – results in clear and unacceptable human health and environmental impacts. We stand with governments in working to stop these outcomes, and support organizations such as Sustainable Electronics Recycling International. (Note: I serve on the SERI board.)
  2. Preserving the sophisticated testing, repair and refurbishment practices of legitimate manufacturing sectors. These practices, as detailed below, prevent the generation of e-waste, conserve resources and provide valuable equipment to populations throughout the world. We are working to ensure that this channel remains open and available only to legitimate actors that have proper management systems in place and are transparent with governments.

The Basel initiative on electronics has raised fundamental questions about when a product becomes a waste. For example, while it is relatively straightforward for governments to deem a barrel of spent industrial chemicals as a hazardous waste, the same is not true of products such as consumer electronics, automotive assemblies, home appliances and capital equipment.

A laptop, MRI machine, server or refrigerator that is being replaced by its current owner does not necessarily become waste; in fact, there is a vibrant global reuse market for valuable products. Even products with a damaged part or partial functionality often retain value, provided they can be properly serviced. Conversely, even fully functional equipment would typically be regarded as waste if it is destined for recycling. Manufacturers and our business partners have thus created worldwide product recovery, repair and refurbishment networks to restore products to working condition and return them to commerce.

Examples of our sector’s best practices for testing, repair and refurbishment are available HERE and HERE. For the tech sector, a repaired product is typically restored to an “as new” condition, with key functionality intact, and is offered with a new warranty.

These sophisticated practices serve many objectives held in common with governments and the NGO community by:

  1. Returning useful products to active service, thereby deriving maximum benefits out of the energy and material resources used to manufacture them;
  2. Helping bridge the “digital divide” by making valuable tech and medical equipment available to populations that are often unable to afford new equipment;
  3. Preventing the premature generation of e-waste by repairing broken products instead of sending them for shredding;
  4. Saving resources by collecting spare parts and using them to service similar equipment still in the field (instead of manufacturing new service parts); and,
  5. Limiting demand for the mining of new raw materials.

Overall, these practices satisfy the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle hierarchy. Governments acting at the global level acknowledge these desirable outcomes and recognize the need to preserve and encourage these activities.

A parallel discussion occurred in Beijing related to used equipment that is still functional but may be old or considered obsolete by some. Several government representatives noted that the age of equipment is a key factor for them in determining when a product or part may be deemed a waste. Parties that lack a mature e-recycling infrastructure do not want old but functioning devices such as cathode ray tubes (CRTs) imported into their countries, where they may soon be discarded. Other governments noted that a functioning product, or even a broken product that could be repaired, did not fit their definition of waste. They do not believe this issue is even within the purview of the Basel Convention and that World Trade Organization obligations may take precedence here. This dialogue centered around CRTs but could easily be applied to any manner of used equipment.

The tech sector will maintain our partnership with governments as they grapple with these complex issues. We will continue to provide technical expertise and identify our best practices so that governments and NGOs can work with us to differentiate good shipments for servicing from illicit shipments of e-waste. The next meeting of the Basel Expert Working Group on Electronics is in April, and tech will again participate to drive towards shared environmentally sound outcomes.

Public Policy Tags: Energy