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Electronic waste and environmental impacts
These new technological developments often make previous technologies obsolete. However, the physical items themselves do not disappear. A serious question regarding the ongoing sustainability of ICT4D is electronic waste or e-waste, which is the most rapidly growing waste problem in the world. Toxic elements of ICTs such as lead, beryllium, mercury, cadmium and flame retardants pose both an occupational and environmental health threat. Most of the consumption of information technologies occurs in wealthy economies, while the waste products are often shipped to developing countries (where the raw materials came from in many cases). This makes ICTs dependent upon a process which for many countries results in a conversion of their natural resources into toxic material.
International movement of hazardous waste is controlled by the Basel Convention 1992. There is also a proposed amendment, the 'Basel Ban', which prohibits international trade in waste classified as hazardous. Although this has not been ratified, the European Union is voluntarily abiding by the ban (Terazono et al. 2006, p. 6). Nevertheless, close to 40,000 tons of used electronic equipment find their way to India every month, unnoticed, and they are getting routed to illegal electronics dump grounds, reports Ravi Agarwal, director of the non-profit environmental group Toxics Link. The equipment is then incinerated, contaminating the environment with toxic organic compounds and metals (Basu 2006).
There are positive aspects of the international trade in e-waste. The working lives of products can be extended through reuse, and second-hand goods can still be used in many recipient countries even if the goods are considered obsolete in the exporting countries. This not only increases resource utilization efficiency, but also provides economic benefits for people in the importing countries. However, it is difficult to ignore the vastly asymmetrical risks associated with this trade. Often, related industries in recipient countries, especially in the informal sectors, do not consider externalities such as environmental effects. Market price alone does not reflect the true economic value of a material. There are human costs through illness and long-term spoiling of natural resources that can occur through toxic spillage.
There are initiatives in the region to control the e-waste problem. The EECZ Programme (http://www.eecz.org/index.html), for example, is dedicated to reducing the environmental pollution caused by industrial activities and hazardous waste in the Chinese province of Zhejiang. The programme is focused on establishing a well-regulated hazardous waste management system and supporting eco-efficient production.
Combating e-waste will require a range of strategies. As a net importer of waste, Asia Pacific could negotiate an agreed range of standards that will allow shared monitoring and enforcement. Much of the current trade occurs in the informal sector and it is difficult to determine the long-term effects. Of course, more eco-friendly manufacturing processes and more serious attempts to reduce the generation of e-waste will be critical. Ultimately, the selling price of technology should also reflect its true cost, including environmental and human costs which are largely ignored by ICT producers.