Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Health, North America

HEALTH: Cheap Cell Phones Increase Piles of ‘E-Waste’ in South

Katherine Stapp

NEW YORK, May 17 2002 (IPS) - Cellular phones have been a blessing for far-flung populations in developing countries, where fixed land lines are scarce and unreliable, but a watchdog group warns that they could soon become a curse.

More than a billion mobile phones are in use around the world – mostly in richer countries like the United States, Japan and Europe, but increasingly in Latin America, Africa and Asia. That number is expected to hit 1.6 billion by the end of next year.

What worries health experts and ecologists is that cell phones contain the same toxic substances as other information age products that are discarded as so-called e-waste – copper, lithium, cadmium, zinc, nickel, arsenic and lead – all associated with cancer and a range of reproductive, neurological and developmental disorders.

When dumped in landfills, brominated flame retardants used in the plastic components of mobile phones can pollute groundwater and soil, something that is already happening in China.

The problem arises when flashy new models entice consumers to discard their old phones. In the United States alone, according to a new report by the New York-based INFORM, 130 million mobile phones, weighing in at about 65,00 tonnes of waste, will be tossed out in the next three years as people upgrade to versions that offer Internet browsing, roaming e-mail access and other perks.

“Because these devices are so small, their environmental impacts might appear to be minimal,” said Bette Fishbein, the author of the INFORM report, ‘Waste in the Wireless World’.

“But the growth in their use has been so enormous that the environmental and public health impacts of the waste they create are a significant concern. Now is the time to address them,” she said.

In February, the United Nations telecom agency, the International Telecommunications Union, announced that the number of cell phones world-wide would overtake fixed land lines by the beginning of March. This is less surprising in light of the fact that there are more fixed lines in Manhattan than in all of Sub-Saharan Africa.

That was, perhaps, the good news. But also in February, U.S. watchdog groups revealed that certain countries in Asia – primarily China, Pakistan and India – had become a dumping ground for e-waste from the United States.

Their investigation highlighted the town of Guiyu in Guangdong Province near Hong Kong, where an army of migrant labourers toils to break up and melt down a literal mountain of computer parts, many of which are then dumped in rivers and streams.

The situation is so bad that potable water must be trucked in from 30 kilometres away because the groundwater in the area has become poisonous.

“We found a cyber-age nightmare,” said Jim Puckett, co-ordinator of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, the group that led the investigation. “They call this recycling, but it’s really dumping by another name. Yet to our horror, we discovered that rather than banning it, the United States government is actually encouraging this ugly trade to avoid finding real solutions to the massive tide of obsolete computer waste generated in the U.S. daily.”

To aggressive environmental groups like Greenpeace, this was hardly news.

In 1994, a bloc of developing countries – lobbied by Greenpeace – adopted what is known as the Basel Ban, which prohibits hazardous waste exports from the 29 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The ban is still actively opposed by countries like the United States, South Korea, Australia and Canada, which have refused to ratify it.

Obsolete computers have typically been the focus of grassroots campaigners’ wrath, but as the INFORM report points out, cell phones – though much smaller – pose comparable environmental and health dilemmas.

As markets in developed countries reach the saturation point, telecom companies are turning their sights on the vast, and relatively untapped, market in places like China, India and Latin America.

On May 8, Nokia, which dominates about a third of the cell phone market, announced a new line of low-cost mobile phones for developing countries.

“Despite the market slowdown, there is still a lot of market potential we are looking closely at, especially for extremely affordable models in areas such as India and the rural areas of China and Latin America,” said Tapio Hedman, a Nokia spokesman.

Nokia did not respond to IPS queries regarding the company’s take-back and recycling policy in developing countries.

In the United States, some more far-sighted companies are moving to detoxify their phones as much as possible. A Texas-based company called Valence, Inc. is developing a new battery pack – the source of some of the worst toxins – that uses phosphate, which is relatively harmless. Motorola, a leading mobile phone manufacturer, is exploring a methane-based pack.

This is just what the INFORM study recommends. The group gives credit where it’s due, noting that the European Union and Japan already outpace the United States in domestic legislation to reduce the harmful effects of e-waste.

To minimise the waste, INFORM urges the United States to adopt a single technical standard for all cell phone carriers. The group points out that the EU standard is used by more than 130 countries – two-thirds of the world’s mobile phone owners – while competing standards in the United States force users to buy a new contract when they switch providers or travel abroad.

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