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Turning the toxic tide


Kumi Naido

Executive Director, Greenpeace International

It is one of the first rules that you learn as a child: if you make a mess you need to clean it up. Later in life we learn that it is better to never make a mess at all. These lessons apply to E-waste — the leftovers from electronic and electrical equipment — globally one of the fastest growing types of hazardous waste.

UNEP has estimated that upwards of 40 million tonnes of E-waste are generated worldwide every year. But it doesn’t have to be this way — not if policy-makers, responsible manufacturers and informed consumers join together to solve the problem.

E-waste is classified as hazardous waste due to the many toxic ingredients it contains — including heavy metals and harmful, persistent chemicals — with the potential to pollute the environment and damage human health when it is processed, recycled or disposed of. It affects most acutely populations in developing countries, where people are exposed to toxic chemicals from E-waste dumped near their homes.

For the past five years Greenpeace has campaigned around the globe to press leading electronic companies and policy-makers to turn back this toxic tide. The campaign has been very effective and we are seeing remarkable progress, but there is a lot still to do to safeguard communities.

The problem is being addressed through two tracks: legislation and company policy. The European Union, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and several US and Canadian states have introduced laws making producers responsible for their products at the end of their lives. Similar legislation is being developed in some non-OECD countries, including China, India, Thailand and Argentina. We need less talk and more action from governments on this vital issue.

The EU implemented legislation on Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) in July 2006. This bans the use of some substances in electrical and electronic products to facilitate safer recycling, but did not address the use of PVC plastic or that of all brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in electronics. Both are a major source of chemical byproducts from discarded electronics, and RoHS must be strengthened to phase them out. Most recycling and disposal takes place in developing nations where there is no safe infrastructure and little to no worker and environmental protection laws.

That same year, Greenpeace developed a strategy to change the consumer electronics sector from the inside out. We decided to use its competitiveness to get leading brands to vie with each other to produce the greenest products — and to inform consumers about which companies scored the best.

We used our Guide to Greener Electronics, a quarterly report card for the consumer electronics industry. The initial results of the first Guide were hardly inspiring: the biggest names in electronics failed their first global exam on their green credentials. Only Dell and Nokia achieved a barely respectable score, while Apple, Motorola and Lenovo finished at the bottom of the class.

We therefore launched a Green My Apple campaign. Enthusiasts around the globe made it clear that while they loved their Macs, they wanted them to be available in green. The firm eventually listened to its customers and set out to change its products.

The 16th edition of our Guide was published in October, and we see strong evidence for many of the types of the transformative change we hoped for when we began our campaign. We are now witnessing a real race to the top. Apple, Nokia and Sony Ericsson have begun to phase out the most toxic substances from their products, and — eager to not fall behind — other companies have begun to follow their lead, sometimes with a bit of friendly encouragement from Greenpeace.

Now, many companies, including Acer, Hewlett Packard, Philips and the Indian firms Wipro and HCL are offering smart phones, computers, monitors and televisions which are free of the most toxic chemicals, including PVC plastic and BFRs.

There are similar gains in product energy efficiency, and in companies embracing the concept of final responsibility for their products by offering more opportunities for them to be taken back, conveniently and without charge. This is especially crucial in areas outside the EU that do not yet have E-waste collection laws.

We have continued to expose illegal E-waste shipments and pushed for stronger laws in the EU, India, and the Americas. Our supporters have joined the chorus for change — as have allied organisations around the globe.

While there is still plenty of room for improvement — most importantly in making longer lasting products and protecting the health and safety of electronics workers — campaigners and the electronics industry are in many ways no longer that far apart. Governments now need to catch up and do their part to safeguard vulnerable communities. Until the problem is solved, Greenpeace will continue to push both corporate boardrooms and global capitals for a rapid end to E-waste pollution.

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