Green signals from cellphone companies

Posted: 27 February 2003

With over a billion mobile phones in use worldwide, major manufacturers have agreed to cooperate with the Hazardous Wastes Convention to bring about sound management of their end-of-life disposal.

The move, signalled at the Sixth Conference of Parties (CoP-6) to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, in Geneva, in December 2002, comes none too soon.

Mobile phones contain a whole range of persistent bio-accumulative toxins (PBTS) including arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, zinc and brominated fire retardants that are known to threaten the environment.

And the problem is bound to grow. The report to the Conference found that by 2005, as many as 130 million mobile phones weighing 65,000 tonnes will be discarded annually in the United Sates alone.

Take-back schemes

Following the commitment by major industry players, the meeting set up a group of experts to draft a work programme and instructed the secretariat to involve the Basel Convention's regional centres in projects.

The initiative involves the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Basel Convention, the Swiss Government and 10 cell phone manufacturers including Matushita (Panasonic), Mitsubishi, Motorola, NEC, Nokia, Philips, Samsung, Seimens and Sony Ericsson. Environmentally sound management involves collection of the mobile phones from consumers and their dispatch for recycling. The aim is to recover metals and low-grade plastics that can be used again, while hazardous materials are treated separately and disposed of in landfills. Most of the top companies already have "take-back" schemes in place that encourage customers to discard their used or old cellphones, batteries and accessories by using designated recycling bins. For example, Nokia has more than 200 such facilities in nine countries in the Asia-Pacific region alone, including India.

"The phones collected from this region are sent to the recycling plant of Citiraya (Nokia's partner) in Singapore," said a Nokia spokesperson. "There, the mobile phones are treated along with other electronic waste."

Larger issues

Although cellular phone companies have taken a step in the right direction, there are larger issues to be considered when dealing with hazardous wastes generated by electronic gadgets, says Ravi Agarwal, a CoP-6 delegate and the director of New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation Toxics Link.

He feels that the problem should be addressed at the production stage itself: "In the long run, it is essential that these companies change the designs of their products to reduce toxic substances. This would enable us to move in the direction of waste minimisation rather than just waste management."

Another problem is that increasingly stringent legislation in developed ocuntries is causing toxic waste to be shipped to developing countries where environmental laws are lax. Agarwal observes, "Electronic goods at the end of their life, like other products, find their way into developing countries as second-hand goods or donations on the pretext of being useful." Soon they degenerate into waste. The end result: the North becomes cleaner at the cost of the South.

Others point to the need for an approach which extends the producer's responsibility, physical and/or financial, to the post-consumer stage of a product's lifecycle. Bharati Chaturvedi of Chintan, an environmental research and action group in New Delhi, says: "Looking at them as mobile phones or e-waste is not the solution because technology is moving faster than legislation. One, therefore, needs to address the issue in terms of extended producer responsibility.

"Even as a few developed nations are moving in this direction, a lot more needs to be done in the light of the problem acquiring a global dimension. It must be ensured that the responsibility of the developed countries is extended to developing country markets as well."

This article is drawn from Down to Earth, the magazine of the Centre for Science and the Environment, in New Delhi. See: http://www.downtoearth.org.