End to Toxins in Electronics?

April 13, 2011

An electronic waste dump in Accra, Ghana. ©2009 Basel Action Network (BAN).

Toxic substances used in our electronics continue to be an issue. This week more than 100 global experts made recommendations for a United Nations process on reducing and eliminating hazardous chemicals in the design, manufacturing and disposal of electronic products.

Delegates from the private sector, pubic interest groups and government agencies met in Vienna, Austria, to develop key recommendations including:

  • Eliminating chemical hazards during design.
  • Phasing-out currently used hazardous substances.
  • Improving information transparency and flow.
  • Ensuring equal protection of workers, communities and consumers.
  • Preventing export of hazardous electronic wastes from developed to developing countries.
  • Controlling export and import of near-end-of-life equipment.
  • Taking the special needs of small island developing states into account.

Many electronics products are already RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) compliant, meaning the use of toxic metals and chemicals like lead and brominated flame retardants have been reduced in the manufacturing of the products. However, under the guise of recycling, many used electronics are still shipped to poor countries where the products are irresponsibly disassembled and stripped for their metals and the plastic chasses burned in open pits, creating serious health hazards for children, laborers and nearby residents.

Some electronics recyclers have been certified as e-Stewards by the Basel Action Network (BAN) for pledging to recycle electronics responsibly and not ship them overseas, though the practice remains widespread.

Burn houses in distance and smoke where computer parts from the United States are burned. These e-waste "crematoria" are constructed apparently to avoid "open burning.” However the impacts on the workers with little ventilation will be worse than open air burning. ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

The Korean Institute of Labor Safety and Health (Republic of Korea) and the International Labour Organization (Switzerland) presented information on how electronics manufacturing workers and nearby communities are being exposed to hazardous chemicals, the types of chemicals causing concern, recognition of adverse effects, controlling exposure, and how the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) agreement, a global strategy and policy framework to establish sound management of hazardous chemicals and wastes by 2020, needs to address these issues.

Recommendations were made on eliminating chemicals of concern, whixh are defined by SAICM as including “persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances (PBTs); very persistent and very bioaccumulative substances; chemicals that are carcinogens or mutagens or that adversely affect the reproductive, endocrine, immune or nervous systems; persistent organic pollutants (POPs), mercury and other chemicals of global concern; chemicals produced or used in high volumes; those subject to widespread dispersive uses; and other chemicals of concern at the national level.”

The group also recommends full ingredient disclosure, identifying and implementing substitution strategies and extended producer responsibility—which places the responsibility for collecting and properly recycling used electronics equipment on manufacturers. Many electronics companies last year failed on an Electronics Company Report Card produced by the Electronics Takeback Coalition.

In related news, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) today launched an eCycling Leadership Initiative that seeks to improve consumer awareness of the more than 5,000 collection sites currently sponsored by industry, increase the number of collection opportunities available, and responsibly recycle 1 billion pounds of electronics annually by 2016. (See related post.)

“The eCycling Leadership initiative is an ongoing, permanent initiative that will follow the best practices and commitment of industry, including practices that prohibit the use of recyclers and downstream processors who dump end-of-life electronics in developing nations,” says Walter Alcorn, CEA’s vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability.

The CEA favors third-party recycling collections, as opposed to producer responsibility laws.

As part of its recommendations, the group in Vienna would like to see an increased pace to implement green design in electrical and electronic equipment.

Expect green electronics design and the elimination of hazardous chemicals in electronics to be a work in progress. The workshop recommendations will be provided for consideration in SAICM regional meetings, a working group meeting in August, and at the 3rd International Conference on Chemicals Management in 2012.

Presentations from the Vienna meeting and recommendations should soon be posted here.


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