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UN Week – 11/29/10

December 20, 2010

by John and Douglas Carey, Editors,

Contents of this issue: hazardous waste disposal endangering health.

A report of UN Special Rapporteur, Okechukwu Ibeanu, A/HRC/15/ 22, included the following at pages 9-11: “29. Electrical and electronic wastes, commonly referred to as e-waste, encompass a broad and growing list of loosely discarded, obsolete or broken electrical and electronic equipment, such as old mobile phones, computers, refrigerators and television sets. Because of the rapid changes in technology, people are upgrading their electrical and electronic equipment more frequently than ever before. * * *

“31. Electrical and electronic appliances contain hundreds of different substances, many of which are highly toxic and pose significant risks to human health and the environment if they are not managed and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. * * * Furthermore, unusable parts are usually disposed of in landfills or burned, causing widespread and long-lasting contamination of soil, air and surface and groundwater resources.”

Ibeanu also reported on his mission to India at the invitation of its government, A/HRC/15/22/Add.3, telling the following about e-waste: “64. The term ‘e-waste’ is generally used to describe obsolete, broken or discarded appliances using electricity, such as computers, mobile phones and household appliances. Electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) are made of a large number of different substances and materials. Metals (including iron, copper, aluminum and gold) account for 60 per cent of e-waste, while plastics account for 30 per cent. E-waste also contains a number of hazardous substances, which can be released in the workplace and in the surrounding environment during the separation and recovery process. * * *

“70. The Delhi area is the main hub for informal recycling of e-waste in India, with about 25,000 workers engaged in the various stages of the process. The recycling business is based on a network of collectors, traders and recyclers. Each phase of the process adds value to the materials and creates job opportunities for a great number of people. The e-waste market is not centred in one main area, but is spread around different zones, each handling a specific stage of the process (for example storage, component separation, plastic shredding, acid processing/leaching, open burning and residue dumping.” Later come the Rapporteur’s “major concerns”:

“79. The Special Rapporteur cannot but notice that at present, India does not have any law or regulation dealing specifically with e-waste, and that the existing legal framework is not sufficient to ensure that e-waste is managed and disposed of in such a way as to ensure the protection of the human rights of individuals and communities who may be adversely affected by the unsound management and disposal of the hazardous substances contained in obsolete EEE.

“80. So far, legislation on waste management has not proved effective in prohibiting the illegal import of e-waste from developed countries. Loopholes in the Hazardous Wastes Rules, 2008, have facilitated the import of obsolete EEE – computers, in particular – as second-hand products just before they reach the end of their operating life (10 years). Illegal import to India of obsolete EEE can also be disguised as a donation or as a sale of scrap metal. Since the United States of America has not ratified the Basel Convention, the import of e-waste from the United States is expressly prohibited by article 4, paragraph 5, of the Convention, according to which a party ‘shall not permit hazardous wastes or other wastes (…) to be imported from a non-Party’.”

          “81. The Special Rapporteur notes with concern that the new draft rules fail to recognize the reality of e-waste recycling in the country, where at least 95 per cent of e-waste is dismantled and recycled by the informal sector. He considers that the new legislation does not provide sufficient protection for the estimated 80,000 persons working in the informal e-waste and their families. The failure to incorporate the informal sector into Government strategies on the sound management and disposal of e-waste constitutes, in the Special Rapporteur’s view, a violation of the obligations undertaken by the State under articles 6, 7 and 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.”

          Article 7 of that Covenant says that States parties “recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular: * * * (b) Safe and healthy working conditions * * * ” The other two articles do not appear to be relevant. It may be that the legislative authorities in India do not want to require safe and healthy working conditions for the many thousands who must toil in EEE dismemberment in order to feed their families. If dismantling computers and cell phones with your bare hands is the only way you can eek out a meager living, what choice do you have? If you are an impoverished Indian, at least you know that Americans will probably not compete with you for this work.

          That’s all for this November 29th issue of United Nations Week: News and Views. We’ll be back with the next issue. Meantime, do share your own views on these or other UN-related issues by sending them along to 

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