TCS Daily

Basel Exposition

By Tim Worstall - October 25, 2004 12:00 AM

You might get the impression, reading this site regularly, that some of us writers are less than enamored with the United Nations. To balance things, to show the good things that can be and are done by this organization, I'd like to tell you about the meeting of the signatories to the Basel Convention last week in Geneva.

This treaty regulates the international movement of toxic waste and it looks like some items will be added to the list of what is considered to be such. It is Basel, for example, that prevents the rich countries from dumping their wastes in the back gardens of the poor across the world, for a basic rule of the agreement is that wastes may not be moved from an OECD country to a non-OECD country. However much some starving African would like to have a pile of assorted European junk in his garden, along with the associated fees for storing it or sorting through it, he may not, and quite right too as we would be taking advantage of his neediness for our own profit.

One of the items likely to be added to the list of verboten goods is used or scrap mobile (cell) phones. This might strike you as a little odd but in fact they are packed with all sorts of poisons. Some of the chips are made of gallium arsenide and as we know arsenic is a vicious poison; the contacts contain beryllium which can cause a foul disease similar to asbestosis; solder has lead and we certainly do not want that to enter the water supply; the plastics, when burnt at inadequate temperatures, can create dioxins; old batteries contain cadmium....well, you get the picture. The 230 million that the EU and US throw away each year quite simply cannot be dumped on the poor in the Third World there to poison them and their children.

I think we should therefore be grateful to the United Nations and its agencies for removing this threat to the billions of those humans who live in the non-OECD countries. We can leave aside the corruption revealed in UNScam, the oil for fraud fiasco, the way in which everything evil is ascribed to Israel and the US, the vile absurdities of Sudan and Libya being on the Human Rights Commission, the refusal of the World Health Organization to buy effective malaria drugs or approve the use of DDT. After all, no human made artifact is perfect so we should learn to take the rough with the smooth and praise those who work to protect us when indeed they do.

I might note, as someone who works professionally with metals, that some of the health worries are a little overstated. Gallium arsenide is stable; the beryllium is in an alloy with copper and so does not cause berylliosis; dioxins and cadmium are not quite as bad as is made out. Yet this is mere trivia when talking about the threat to people's health, of course. My further pointing out that scrap phones are not actually exported, for they are far too valuable for the above metals contained in them, will be met with a blank stare. What are all these used phones that are being exported then? If they are not being dumped in the wells to poison the poor where are they going?

This will no doubt some as a surprise to the types who go to these international meetings but mobile phones do not actually come free. The airtime providers must buy them, for some hundreds of dollars, from the manufacturers. Unsurprisingly, people retailing airtime to people living on $5 a day think this would be an unappealing subsidy, one which they would never get back. The huge growth in usage of mobile phones in the poor world is in fact driven by people who collect used phones from the likes of you and me and our airtime providers. These are then checked and those that do not work are crushed, ground, disassembled in a variety of ways and the valuable metals recovered. Those that still work are sold for $5-$10 a time into those countries where governance is so efficient that it does not provide land lines, preferring instead that the people should leap-frog a technological level. Places like the aforementioned Libya and Sudan. Putting used mobile phones on the list of those items that cannot be exported to undeveloped countries would indeed be worthwhile, for of course none of us would want to see the poor actually able to communicate, now would we, their masters might be forced to listen at some point. We can still sell them new phones of course, although the poor cannot afford them, and they too will, at some point, go into the inadequate recycling systems of these countries, but I must of course be a totally cynical bastard to point such things out.

There are also some trivial economic issues to consider. Placing used mobiles on the Basel list will mean that they become what is known as a "red list" item. This means that there are various bureaucratic rules about who may handle them and how. To give you an idea consider used ink jet cartridges, another item on this red list. Within the European Union only those with the requisite license are allowed to handle them. One friend waited three years for his with some two years of the delay spent in an argument over whether his hand washing facilities were in the correct place. All movements of these items must be reported to the Ministry of the Environment in the respective country (countries if it goes from one EU state to another) and each regular business disposing of cartridges after they are empty of ink must secure and the keep on file a copy of said license. In theory, so must individuals with a printer in the spare bedroom. I am prepared to believe that the EPA is less intrusive in the US but not certain that it will be forever.

The most difficult part of a scrap business, whether we are talking about steel, phones or cartridges, is the collection in the first place. This is where most of the money goes, creating a system that both enables and encourages the individual user to recycle rather than simply throw the item into the trash can. As we know from Econ 101 if we raise to people the expense of doing something then they will do less of it. I would submit that asking an entire continent to indulge in a paper chase every time they replace their mobile phone would be one of those increases in price, one that will possibly, just possibly, lead to a reduction in the number of phones recycled rather than discreetly tossed over a hedge somewhere. We saw the same just over a decade ago when lead acid batteries were brought under the same rules, a fall in the recycling rate from the previous free market system.

What we appear to have then is a well meaning effort to reduce the movement of toxic wastes from rich countries to poor ones. The net effect would also appear to be that recycling rates will fall, those items which will be recycled will be done so at the lowest level, for the metals content rather than perfectly usable electronic items being, well, reused, a number of exporters will go out of business and, perhaps least important to the expense account jet setters who attend these meetings, the poorest of the poor will be denied the only form of telecommunications they can afford.

As I said above, no human organization can be perfect and it is important for us to recognize the good that some can do, along with the deserved castigation we throw their way when they get it wrong. I wish to call therefore for a rousing three cheers for the United Nations and their meeting on the Basel Convention. They protect the poor of this world from being poisoned by the overflow of waste electronics from our consumption based economy. Too bad no can call us to tell us of the effect. I think it would be most unkind of you to note that I am as seemingly incapable of sarcasm as the UN is of irony.

The author is a businessman, entrepreneur, and TCS contributor. Find more of his writing here.


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