The Basel Convention
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is a global agreement that establishes the international legal regime governing the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes destined for disposal or recycling. The Convention was adopted in 1989 and came into force in 1992. Currently 169 countries and the European Community have become Parties to the Convention. Parties meet their obligations through domestic regulations that implement the Convention.
The Convention aims to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects resulting from the generation, management, transboundary movements, and disposal of hazardous and other wastes. In the spirit, intent and purpose of the Basel Convention, each country needs to establish and operate an effective control on the import of hazardous and other wastes; this includes end-of-life equipment. Unless such control is in place and enforced, the massive transfer of uncontrolled e-wastes to developing countries in particular, will continue to generate an ever-growing health and environmental burden for these countries. Of the 170 Parties to the Convention, Afghanistan, Haiti and the United States have signed the Convention but have not yet ratified it.
The Convention imposes prior notification and consent controls on cross-border shipments of covered hazardous wastes between Parties. When the Basel Ban Amendment, adopted in 1995, comes into force, trade in hazardous wastes between Parties is not allowed. Transboundary movements of hazardous wastes between Parties and non-Parties in the absence of an appropriate “Article 11” agreement are also prohibited.
For example, OECD members have completed an Article 11 Agreement that governs hazardous waste classifications and notice and consent procedures for shipments of waste for recycling among OECD states. Governments are obligated to ensure that waste shipments only proceed where the wastes can be managed in an “environmentally sound manner” in the countries of import.Waste trafficking is penalized and sanctions vary according to each party’s legislation.
Basel Convention definition of waste
End-of-use electronic equipment that meets the Basel Convention’s definitions for “waste” and “hazardous waste” would be subject to import and export controls and shipment prohibitions under the Convention. The Basel Convention defines wastes broadly as substances or objects which are disposed of or are intended to be disposed of or are required to be disposed of by the provisions of national law». The Convention then defines disposal by reference to lists of disposal operations, such as landfill or incineration, including recycling operations. Repair of computer equipment, however, is not a listed operation, and so computer equipment that is truly intended to be repaired is not defined as waste.
Basel Convention hazardous wastes
Equipment classified as waste that is derived from waste streams or contains a constituent listed in Annex I of the Convention (e.g. lead, cadmium, mercury, beryllium) is presumed to be hazardous, unless it can be demonstrated that the waste does not possess any hazardous characteristics provided under Annex III. The Basel Convention does not provide any guidance on the development of testing protocols, leaving their design and implementation to national governments. However, for specific waste streams technical guidelines have been adopted for implementation by Parties.
The Convention provides further classification guidance on the classification of electronic equipment. Under Annex VIII the following wastes are categorized as hazardous wastes when they contain Annex III characteristics:
- (i) A1180, waste electrical and electronic assemblies and scrap (“e-scrap”) are presumed to be hazardous if they contain one or more of the following components: batteries listed under Annex VIII; mercury switches; CRT glass; other activated glass and PCB capacitors; and any additional component that contains an Annex I constituent;
- (ii) A1150 - precious metal ash from incineration of printed circuit boards not included in Annex IX;
- (iii) A1170 - waste batteries not specified on Annex IX that contain Annex I constituents to an extent to render them hazardous; (A1190: waste metal cables coated or insulated with plastics containing or contaminated with coal tar, PCB, lead, cadmium, other organohalogen compounds or other Annex I constituents;
- (iiii) A2010 - glass waste from cathode-ray tubes and other activated glass. Wastes defined as hazardous in domestic legislation (Article 1(1)(b) of exporting, importing or transit countries) are also covered by the Convention. Companies handling electronic waste should be mindful of national legislation implementing the Basel Convention to ensure compliance with applicable country requirements.
The European directive 2002/196/EC related to the WEEE (Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment) published in January 2003 signaled a first step in the political management of used computer equipment. This directive defines the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) concerning the collection of WEEE, the systematic treatment of hazardous parts, the recovery of all the WEEE collected, with priority given to reuse and recycling, and also to eco-design. In countries with EPR laws like the EU, some US states and Japan, electronics manufacturers are financially responsible for dealing with the waste from their products, meeting collection and recycling targets and other obligations. However, EPR only applies to domestically generated wastes.
Some developing countries are also starting to establish their own policies in order to ensure the quality of inbound shipments of used e-equipment. For instance, in August 2007, China adopted a bill on the “Circular Economy” based on a system of fines and bonuses. An entrepreneur in the business of repairing used computer equipment should be sure that the laws of his country, and of any country from which the used computer equipment has been imported, have been followed.
Under its Strategic Plan adopted in 2002, Parties to the Basel Convention have identified used and end-of-use electronic equipment as a “priority waste stream”. This higher profile has promoted a number of WEEE-focused initiatives under the Convention, such as the Mobile Phone Partnership Initiative (MPPI), a private-public partnership addressing the environmentally sound management of used and end-of-use mobile phones. At the G8 level, Japan’s proposed “3Rs Initiative”, which explores options for recycling of used equipment and materials, particularly in Asia, is gaining in importance in this connection.
At the Eighth Conference of the Parties (COP), held in late November 2006 in Nairobi, the Parties adopted the Ministerial Declaration on e-waste (known as the “Nairobi Declaration on the Environmentally Sound Management of Electrical and Electronic Waste”) and a formal COP Decision on e-waste, establishing the priority e-waste management issues for governments and other stakeholders, calling for the development of a work plan on e-waste for the next biennium. Future partnerships may include a Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment (PACE), which could address the development of recycling guidelines and pilot projects for shipments to pre-certified recycling facilities.
In addition, the Parties are considering a series of options raised under the aegis of the MPPI to address issues and ambiguities associated with the classification and management of mobile phones for the purpose of facilitating increased collection and the environmentally sound management of mobile phones.