Hazardous Waste


The Basel Convention

Figure 1: Signatories to the Basel Convention – notice the United States is not a signatory (Source: Basel Convention)

The Basel Convention is a UN led initiative to establish international control of the movement of hazardous waste and proper disposal (it does not cover radioactive waste).

It was adopted in 1989 and entered into force on 5 May 1992. It was created to address increasing concerns over the management, disposal and transboundary movements of hazardous wastes. The main principles of the Convention are that:

  1. transboundary movements of hazardous wastes should be reduced to a minimum consistent with their environmentally sound management;
  2. hazardous wastes should be treated and disposed of as close as possible to their source of generation;
  3. hazardous waste generation should be reduced and minimized at source

The categories of wastes and the hazardous characteristics are set out in Annexes I to III of the Convention. Lists of specific wastes characterized as hazardous or non-hazardous are in Annexes VIII and IX. As of May 2006, 170 states were Parties to the Convention. The total number of ratifications with the 1995 Ban Amendment stands at 63.

The Basel Convention covers hazardous wastes that are:

  • explosive,
  • flammable,
  • poisonous,
  • infectious,
  • corrosive,
  • toxic, or ecotoxic

The Basel Convention has created an interactive data visualization tool to show generation and transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and other wastes. It contains data for the years 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010

Figure 2: Basel Convention interactive map – showing tonnage of e-waste and importing and exporting countries and where e-waste is being shipped. Click on the graphic to go to map (Source: Basel Convention)


Electronics are a reality of modern life – cell phones, laptops, TVs and a growing number of other gadgets. Consider that the rather niche market of Robotic toys alone is 30 billion dollars a year and growing.

Figure 3: E-waste interactive infographic. Click on the “play” button on the far left to launch

The electronic market is well known for short product lifespans with many of the products being designed-for-the-dump. Practical cost of repair often exceeds replacement cost, making it more economically viable to throw a damaged circuit board away than it is to repair it.

Every year the marketers of the electronic manufacturer supply chain lure us into buying the latest gadget and every year, we fall prey to this marketing, spending the latest tech toys to support our needs and desires. Novelty is built into the next generation of electronic products, creating a strong compulsion to own the new gadget. Apple and Steven Jobs are the most iconic representatives  of this consumer dependent economics. His mysticism and showmanship combined to make Apple new product releases the stuff of legends. Apple stands as the leading electronic brand of the modern technocracy but sadly, from an environmental perspective, this ability to create compulsion for a product lay at the very heart of consumerism driven ecological damage now plaguing human civilization.

Over 300 million computers and one billion cell phones are produced every year to satisfy our global demand. The US alone generates 3 million tons of e-waste, of which only 15% is recycled. And of that 15% recycled, only a fraction of materials can be recovered. In 2006, the Basel Convention estimated that some 20 to 50 million metric tonnes of e‐waste are generated worldwide every year, comprising more than 5% of all municipal solid waste. When the millions of computers purchased around the world every year become obsolete they leave behind lead, cadmium, mercury and other hazardous wastes.

Health and Environmental Effects of E-Waste

Figure 4: Effects of e-waste on human body (Source: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition)

  • Lead – The health effects of lead are well known; lead exposure causes brain damage in children and has already been banned from many consumer products.
  • Mercury -Mercury is toxic in very low doses, and causes brain and kidney damage. It can be passed on through breast milk; just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate 20 acres of a lake, making the fish unfit to eat.
  • Cadmium – Cadmium accumulates in the human body and poisons the kidneys.
  • BFRs – Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) may seriously affect hormonal functions critical for normal development. A recent study of dust on computers in workplaces and homes found BFRs in every sample taken. One group of BFRs, PBDEs, has been found in alarming rates in the breast milk of women in Sweden and the U.S.

E-waste is one of the World’s Fastest Growing Wastestreams

E‐waste is still the fastest growing municipal waste stream in the US and in many other countries of the world. In the US, the EPA estimates the category of “selected consumer electronic products” grew by almost 5% from 2007 to 2008, from 2.84 million tons from 3.01 million tons to 3.16 million tons. While it’s not a large part of the waste stream, e‐waste shows a higher growth rate than any other category of municipal waste in the EPA’s report. Overall, between 2007 and 2008, total volumes of municipal waste DECREASED, while e‐waste volumes continue to increase. (Electronic Takeback Coalition)


Figure 5: Projected growth of consumer electronic goods worldwide – some years unknown (Source: Gartner and Forrester Research 2012)

Forrester Research  issued a forecast  in March 2012 and expects that the number of adults who will own a tablet device in 2016 will be:

  • 112.5 million U.S. adults, or 34.3 percent of the population
  • 105.7 million European adults or 30.4 percent of the population

It comes as no surprise then, that electronic equipment and gadgets are also the fastest growing waste stream in many countries.  All of these electronic devices become obsolete or unwanted, often within 2-3 years of purchase. This global mountain of waste is expected to continue growing 8% per year, indefinitely (BCC Research). A 2010 EPA report indicates that in the United States alone, 142,000 computers and over 416,000 mobile devices are discarded EVERY DAY and of this amount, only 600,000 tons or 17.7 % was recycled. The rest was sent to landfills or incinerators.


Table 1: electronic sales (Source: Electronic Takeback Coalition)

Where it’s all Going

Much of this e-waste has illegally ended up in Ghana, Nigeria, India and China where it forces people to choose poison over extreme poverty.  By burning wire, circuitboards to ineffectively mine copper and other metals, these unprotected people are subjecting themselves to some of the most powerful toxins in the world.


Figure 6: Where the world’s e-waste ends up (Source: Greenpeace)

According to the landmark 2009 UN report “Recycling – from E-Waste to Resources,”developed countries still hand off much of their discarded e-waste to developing countries, who face the spectre of a growing mountain of e-waste with serious consequences for the environment and public health. The report used data from 11 representative developing countries to estimate current and future e-waste generation including:

  • old desktop and laptop computers,
  • printers,
  • mobile phones,
  • pagers,
  • digital photo and music devices,
  • refrigerators,
  • toys
  • televisions

Some of the results from the report are:

  • In South Africa, China and India, from 2007 to 2010, e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 percent in China and South Africa and and by 500% in India
  • By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about 7 times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher.
  • By 2020, e-waste from televisions will be 1.5 to 2 times higher in China and India while in India e-waste from discarded refrigerators will double or triple.
  • China already produces about 2.3 million tonnes (2010 estimate) domestically, second only to the United States with about 3 million tonnes. And, despite having banned e-waste imports, China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries.
  • Moreover, most e-waste in China is improperly handled, much of it incinerated by backyard recyclers to recover valuable metals like gold – practices that release steady plumes of far-reaching toxic pollution and yield very low metal recovery rates compared to state-of-the-art industrial facilities.

Figure 7: E-waste infographic –  how much we produce and where it ends up