Toxic Trade News / 8 February 2006
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The Digital Divide Becomes a Digital Dump
by Joseph Coomson,
8 February 2006 – A large proportion of the old computers exported from advanced nations to developing countries can no longer be used and end up on informal rubbish dumps in poor countries, posing a threat to people and the environment.

Instead of closing the 'digital divide' between rich and poor countries, a 'digital dump' has been created instead.

Exporting computers taken out of service from advanced nations to developing countries is a growth business.

If the hardware still works or is worth being repaired, both sides can benefit from the transaction.

In Ghana, most second-hand computers and other electronic gadgets have been in the shops of importers for over two years as they are obsolete in this current time of modernity.

Manufacturers and consumers in rich countries get rid of their old computers and even make some money off it. The new users in Africa, Asia and Latin America, in turn, acquire urgently needed hard and software at low prices.

That's the theory. In practice, this business is often no more than a convenient form of waste disposal for rich countries.

According to a study by the environmental organization, Basel Action Network (BAN), a large proportion of the exported equipment is worthless scrap, which ends up on informal rubbish dumps in poor countries, in spite being harmful to people and the environment.

Each month, some 400,000 old computers and monitors arrive in Nigeria, where BAN conducted the research.

According to the Nigerian Computer Dealers' Association, up to 75% of these computers can no longer be used and are beyond repair.

'While supposedly closing the "digital divide", we are really starting a "digital dump",' the BAN study sums up.

The report accuses the exporting countries of turning a blind eye to the export of electronic scrap - and of violating a number of international agreements, not least the Basel Convention on the Control of Trans boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes.

The UN Convention, which has been in force since 1992, has over 160 members including all industrialized countries - with the exception of the USA.

But according to BAN, even the USA is under an obligation to control trade in hazardous waste, through an agreement within the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) framework.

BAN is worried that the export of hazardous waste from Europe could increase significantly in the coming years. The reason is an EU guideline, which requires manufacturers and dealers of electronic goods to take back and recycle discarded computers from August 2005.

If EU members do not monitor the export of used equipment more strictly, the study maintains, the guideline will lead to a 'tsunami of electronic waste flowing from port to port'.

The most important demand that the study raises is that exporting countries should ensure testing of every used computer taken out of the country as second-hand equipment. If it no longer works or is beyond repair, it must not be exported.

Australia has already passed such regulation, but according to BAN, poor countries will only benefit if all rich countries follow suit.

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. The Basel Action Network is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

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Select images courtesy of Chris Jordan