Lood, Jack: The Legal Dynamics of Importation and Sale of Refurbished and Obsolete IT Equipment in Relation to e-waste Concept

Before delving the subject matter into a deeper presentation, let us first define or explain the concept of e-waste and refurbished IT equipment especially in computer technology. Secondly, this paper will also present the opportunities, advantages and benefits offered to the people especially in the developing and underdeveloped countries in this computer age era as well as the potential threats and risks pose to our environment, health and social well being of the people.

Electronic waste or e-waste may be defined as all secondary computers, entertainment device electronics, mobile phones, and other items such as television sets and refrigerators, whether sold, donated, or discarded by their original owners. This definition includes used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal. Others define the re-usables (working and repairable electronics) and secondary scrap (copper, steel, plastic, etc.) to be “commodities”, and reserve the term “waste” for residue or material which was represented as working or repairable but which is dumped or disposed or discarded by the buyer rather than recycled, including residue from reuse and recycling operations. In computer technology, refurbished refers to “old” or used computer equipment that has been restored to like-new working condition and/or appearance or computer devices that have been sent back to the factory to fix a flaw. The term typically refers to the hardware components of a computer that have been either replaced with similar components or updated with newer technology than the device originally came with. Companies that lease computers will often refurbish the computers after they are turned in and resell the refurbished units, commonly referred to as refurbs, at prices lower than those of new computers and/or donate the refurbs to schools or charities.

Electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, with an estimated 20-50 million tons being generated annually. As developing countries are joining the global information society, the quantity of electronic hardware is growing even more rapidly. Electric and electronic equipment, new or second-hand, will eventually become obsolete and requires responsible reuse and recycling solutions. Most developing countries lack the infrastructure, know-how and regulatory frameworks for sound reuse and recycling of hazardous waste. E-waste contains a number of unsafe substances which can leak into groundwater if disposed of in conventional landfills, or pollute the air when incinerated.

The protection of the environment, in its widest sense, requires corporations, governments and the civil society to work together to improve environmental performance and avoid the deterioration of the life-support systems. The rapid growth of electronic waste around the world, as a result of growing consumption and disposal, represents a serious threat to the global environment and pose danger to health. But, the sound and safe management of obsolete electronics has the potential to contribute to reducing green house gases, protecting biodiversity and promoting a shift from waste to resources that supports energy efficiency, natural resources conservation and the livelihood of people.

Obsolete electronics are an accessible source of materials that can be reused, refurbished or recycled worldwide and for which adequate technologies currently exist. They represent a significant source of material resources that are being exploited widely. But their unsound management can affect human health and cause harm to the environment. Growing waste volumes, especially old electronics, calls for diverting such waste away from landfill and to increase reuse, recycling and recovery. Progress in reducing environmental footprint is inherently dependant on the ability to reduce waste quantities and hazardousness and avoiding harmful components in products.

Obsolete electronic volumes are on the rise around the world. According to the European Environmental Agency research, e-waste volumes are rising roughly three times faster than other forms of municipal waste. The agency calculates that total will soon reach approximately 40 million metric tons—“enough to fill a line of dump trucks halfway around the world. The other 87.5% wound up in landfills or was incinerated, posing environmental and human health risks as well as wasting a lot of increasingly costly, potentially recoverable metals and other materials.

THE OPPORTUNUTIES, ADVANTAGES AND BENEFITS

From Waste to Opportunity. To curb e-waste in developing countries, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and Microsoft are jointly working towards new income generating opportunities through the innovative re-use and recycling of second-hand ICT equipment. In 2008, both partners launched the computer refurbishment program which offers affordable, safe and much-needed computers to consumers at the bottom of the economic pyramid. The refurbished computer program includes responsible take-back solutions of hardware at the end of its useful life. Responsible reuse and recycling of electronic hardware can trigger a range of environmental, social and economic benefits for developing countries. Extending the life span of electric and electronic equipment through refurbishment can substantially reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturers. Refurbished computers are available at approximately one-third the price of a new PC, thus offering more affordable access to ICT. With adequate technology, training and regulatory frameworks and support, e-waste recycling can positively contribute to the conservation of natural resources, energy savings, a reduction of emissions including greenhouse gases and the development of green technologies. In addition, e-waste recycling offers the potential for job creation. According to Gerry Hackett, Managing director, RDC, “Computer refurbishment provides access to general IT skills, broadens the IT skills base both in schools and business, creates new businesses and jobs, and provides a sustainable solution to the issue of responsibly handling used IT equipment of all kinds — a challenge shared by all countries.”

STRENGTH

Due to the alarming and apparent condition brought by Global Warming, people around the world including various non-governmental organizations are too active and vigilant in monitoring and exposing the threats to the environment and health hazards resulting from e-waste and importation of obsolete IT equipment. And they actively participating in drafting measures and proposals on how to regulate importations of these goods and provide relevant information on how to avoid environmental and health impacts including pressures and lobbying to their respective government to enact measures or laws dealing with the matter. They also conduct information dissemination program in order to educate people regarding the negative effects on the said activity. Some progressive countries are also active and too generous in granting financial assistance and provide free training on how to properly manage this kind of wastes as anticipation because inevitably, these kind of wastes will cover up large portion in the domestic dumpsites in every county especially developing and underdeveloped one.

Some environmental organizations are campaigning for the top mobile phone and computer companies worldwide to clean up their act. Some companies have made commitments to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals such as PVC and brominated flame retardants in the manufacturing of their products and to substitute these harmful substances with safer alternatives.

Also, the Basel Convention which controls and regulates the trade on electronic wastes came into force over 15 years ago. It protects human health and the environment against the adverse effects, which can result from the generation, transboundary movement and management of hazardous wastes and other wastes. Given the fact that this is a Convention that is focused on assisting developing countries, another key objective is to help these countries address in an environmentally sound manner hazardous and other wastes. With the Basel Convention, systems have been put into place to regulate and restrict the export and import of hazardous wastes and other wastes through the notification and prior informed consent procedures. In support of the Convention some other countries enacted their own municipal laws dealing with this problem.

WEAKNESSES

In the Philippines, electronics manufacturing is the country’s top export industry and electronic goods the top import.  At this present level of production, use, and importation, the country is faced with a mounting e-waste problem. This problem is aggravated by the high obsolescence rates of electronic goods. The average lifespan of a computer is currently from 3 to 5 years while a mobile phone lasts for an average of 18 months. Recent statistics point to a surge in computers, mobile phones, and ultimately E-waste, in the country. Shipments of personal computers to the Philippines were estimated to reach 426,521 units in 2004 alone and is projected to reach close to half a million units by the end of the year. 

Meanwhile, the number of cellular phone users was recorded at 18 million in 2003 and at its current projected rate of increase is expected to reach more than 25 million units by end 2005. Accordingly, in one of the biggest importers of used computers in the country pegs their imports of used computers at 1,000 to 2000 units per month. According to them, only about 10% is usable while the rest is being scrapped for parts that can still be used for refurbishing. Such company alone receives 8-10 tons of e-wastes daily and is mostly sourced locally.

Because of the lack of proper measures for E-waste disposal in the Philippines, the discarded technology is incinerated, dumped in landfills, or end up with backyard recyclers, exposing workers, poor communities, and the environment to poisonous heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, and halogenated substances such as brominated flame retardants (BFR), and polyvinyl chloride(PVC).

The operations of the country’s few existing recycling facilities are also unregulated, and their environmental practices questionable, they process computer wastes via a thermal plant which is actually an incinerator, violating the Clean Air Act as well as the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act.
The rate at which these mountains of obsolete electronic products are growing will reach crisis proportions unless electronics corporations that profit from making and selling these devices face up to their responsibilities. Some environmental groups are campaigning for the top mobile phone and computer companies worldwide to clean up their act. Some companies bhave made commitments to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals such as PVC and brominated flame retardants in the manufacturing of their products and to substitute these harmful substances with safer alternatives. However, some of them have so far, failed to commit.

Meanwhile, it’s perfectly legal under U.S. law to export all forms of electronic waste, including color CRTs which are listed as hazardous waste by the EPA, as long as recycling, and not disposal, is the objective. The legality of these waste exports is somewhat murky in the context of an international agreement called the Basel Convention, whose aim is to limit the international spread of hazardous waste, particularly to the developing world. The convention was brokered by the United Nations Environment Program in Basel, Switzerland, in 1989.

Of the countries that originally signed the convention indicating their intent to ratify, only the United States, Haiti, and Afghanistan have failed to do so. Parties to the convention agree to manage those wastes defined by the Basel Convention that are transferred among themselves using a set of evolving criteria that constitute “environmentally sound management.” (The Basel Convention has its own list of hazardous wastes, some of which overlap RCRA [e.g., color CRTs], and some of which do not.) Nonparties have no such legally binding obligation. This means that the United States is free to export color CRTs to China–which has banned imports of such items–without incurring liability.

Even though U.S. companies are prohibited by RCRA from throwing their old electronics away, the “recyclers” that pick them up aren’t bound by any mandated certification program. That means the donor company can absolve itself of liability simply by giving the material to any organization that calls itself a recycler. Sometimes, the donor will get a “certificate of recycling” from the collector, but these certificates aren’t subject to any legally binding approval process. Robert Tonetti, senior environmental scientist with the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste in Washington, D.C., acknowledges that the lack of recycler accreditation creates a gap in the system.

THREATS

Despite the international and domestic laws regulating or banning or prohibiting from entering of e-waste in our country, but some developed countries find legal loopholes in order to sneak their e-waste in our country in the guise of donations to some public schools and other public institutions. These donated computers will only last for few months. Since the government has no enough funds for repairs or disposal and replacement it a bit easier than repair, these computers will be stockpiled in the stock rooms or will be thrown in dumpsites. Some also, since there is a prohibition on exporting e-wastes, they send it for purposes of recycling not dumping. But in the end what they are doing is dumping their e-wastes to other countries.

While electronic waste in the Philippines remains low, environmental group Greenpeace warns that the lack of legislation against proper disposal and management of e-waste could have dire effects on the country’s ecology and human health in the future. Due to the lack of proper legislation and take back initiatives from private companies selling computer equipment, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Toxic Waste Campaigner Beau Baconguis said the Philippines could suffer from an e-waste problem in the next five years. She said the Philippines is also becoming host to many call centers and business process outsourcing companies that purchase and eventually replace computers after three to four years.

Baconguis said they have approached members of the House of Congress several times in the past years to lobby for an electronic waste law. However, political upheavals and lack of understanding of the environmental issues related to e-waste among lawmakers placed proposed legislations in the backburner, she said.
Tens of thousands of used computers and related equipment, which are difficult and expensive to dispose of in developed countries because of their hazardous nature, are annually imported under the pretext of ‘second-hand machinery’. The businessmen that make millions through these deals use the pretext of facilitating computer literacy in the country.

However, these machines contain high amounts of hazardous material such as lead, mercury, chromium and plastics. Since the bulk of the imported consignment is obsolete or beyond repair, it is cannibalized for usable parts and then discarded, allowing unknown quantities of the poisons to seep into the country’s environmental resources. Furthermore, the health of all the people working in the unregulated ‘recycling’ of such equipment is compromised.

While the government has done little to check and regulate such toxic imports, the issue has also not received attention from non-governmental or environmental bodies in the country. As a result, neither the workers in the computer recycling industry nor consumers who buy used equipment due to its low cost are aware of the threats to their health.

Experts warn that the toxic materials found in computer equipment include lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, barium and various sorts of plastics. The older the computer, the higher the level of hazardous elements – newer models are increasingly being designed with this issue in mind.

Owing to such rapid improvements in technology, consumers in developed countries switch as soon as possible to newer and safer machines and simply discard their old equipment. The environmentally-safe disposal of such waste is bound by stringent laws in the West and is an expensive proposition. Therefore, a substantial portion is dumped in developing countries where such environmental laws either don’t exist or the officials in charge are inefficient or corrupt. Disguised as technology transfer or second-hand machinery to facilitate low-cost goods production, the toxic waste is sold to traders in poorer countries.

Illegal entry of IT equipment in the Philippines is considered is also a big threat in our country because it can not be examine whether such IT products are safe and if it is based on international standards.

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Reuse, recycle, reduce or refurbished
  2. Responsible recycling
  3. Strict monitoring by the government authorities as regards the importation of IT equipment, recycling industries, its illegal entry and the condition of such IT equipment
  4. Stricter Domestic laws regulating or even banning with the importation of obsolete and used IT equipment unless it is refurbished
  5. Higher tax to be imposed in all obsolete and used IT equipment’s importation
  6. Impose burden to all IT companies and importers thereof to have programs for the adequate disposal and others similar ways for their IT products. Replacement of the toxic electronic parts in their IT equipment
  7. Adequate education information to all the people regarding the health and environmental hazards brought by these IT equipment
  8. Special certification requirement restriction on the age of equipment
  9. focused and strengthen our own IT equipment
  10. Stricter penalty for the violators
  11. Manufacturers of electronic devices should be required to phase down – and where feasible, phase out – the use of hazardous materials in their products. Manufacturers should be responsible for meeting specified recovery and recycling goals for electronic devices, providing manufacturers with an incentive to help finance the development of a convenient and effective collection infrastructure.
  12. Manufacturers should be required to pay the net cost of recycling electronic devices (or the cost of proper disposal for devices that are not recyclable). This proven approach will provide manufacturers with an incentive to Design products for recyclability, as well as to develop markets for recycling.
  13. Taxpayer funded local Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) programs are already overburdened and under funded and should not be financially responsible for the new task of electronic waste management. In the short-term – in areas where no other collection opportunity exists – HHW programs should be authorized to charge-back manufacturers for the costs of managing their electronic devices.
  14. Philippines must establish a workable regulatory framework for the management of electronics waste that encourages recycling while protecting public health, worker safety and the environment.
  15. Manufacturers of computer monitors, television sets and other electronic devices containing hazardous materials must be responsible for educating consumers and the general public regarding the potential threat to public health and the environment posed by their products, and for raising awareness of the proper waste management protocol. At minimum, all computer monitors, television sets and other electronic devices containing hazardous materials must be clearly labeled to identify environmental hazards and proper materials management.

References:

  1. Webopedia
  2. wikipedia
  3. http://www.UNIDO.org
  4. green_business
  5. Dr. Katherine Kummer Peiry: CBTF Int’l Symposium
  6. Beau Baconguis, Toxics Campaigner
  7. e-junk explosion: Charles W. Schmidt
  8. Alexander Villafania INQUIRER.net
  9. news info using white star photo
  10. DOH.gov.ph
  11. Californians against waste
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