Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

LATIN AMERICA: Warning – Used Cell Phones

Daniela Estrada* - Tierramérica

SANTIAGO, Sep 2 2006 (IPS) - Although mobile telephony has seen exponential growth in Latin America, the region lacks integrated policies for handling used and obsolete cellular telephones, which are manufactured with materials that are toxic to the environment and human health.

According to a study published Aug. 21 by the LatinPanel consulting firm, 70 percent of the Latin American population uses cellular phones. Among the countries where the penetration of this technology is greatest are Colombia (90 percent), Venezuela (89 percent), Chile (87 percent) and Bolivia (82 percent).

The region does not have the enormous dumps for electronic waste from industrialised countries – as exist in nations like China and Pakistan – but the explosive increase in the number of cell phones is beginning to worry some authorities.

There are increasingly more people who throw out their mobile phones while they are still operational, motivated primarily by the technological advances in new telephone models. “Old” phones are often passed on to family members or friends, or shut away in a drawer at home. However, in many cases, the used phones end up in garbage dumps, due to lack of rules and information about proper disposal.

Efforts for re-use and recycling of cellular telephones remain few and far between, and those that exist are promoted in large part by organizations benefiting from them, which then pass on the products to specialised companies. Only a few of the mobile phone service providers operate programs for turning in the units.

Colombia is the only country in the region that is working on major campaigns on safe phone disposal. In early August, the Alvaro Uribe government and mobile telephone companies signed an agreement to collect used phones and send those that cannot be dealt with locally to Europe, where systems are in place with better technology for recycling and for disposal of related toxic waste.

In Mexico, 40 of every 100 residents use cellular phones, equivalent to 40 million people. The first diagnostic of the country’s electronic waste will be ready only in early 2007, and will serve as the basis from which a treatment plan can be developed, Mario Yarto, coordinator of the study at Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology, told Tierramérica.

For now, there is only a general law on waste management, dating to 2003, which includes special procedures for disposing of technological waste. But the law has not yet been enacted, leaving cell phones to continue their route to regular garbage landfills.

In Brazil there are 93 million cell phones: one for every two inhabitants. In force is a resolution by the national council on environment, CONAMA, which requires the manufacturers to collect and provide appropriate disposal of the batteries that have higher than permitted levels for human health of metals including cadmium, lead, nickel and mercury oxide.

However, Marcelo Furtado, of the environmental watchdog Greenpeace-Brazil’s toxic waste campaign, said in a Tierramérica interview that the rule is not heeded, and the volume of batteries produced far exceeds the volume of batteries collected.

The expert said that consumers don’t always know what they can throw away and what to return to the manufacturer, nor are they sure where to dispose of the phone or batteries. That is why, says Furtado, the components of the telephones should be visibly marked and more collection sites set up.

Currently, the Brazilian government is drafting a national policy for solid waste, which will be presented to Congress for debate and should regulate the different types of electronic waste, including mobile phones.

In Chile, where there are 11 million phones in circulation (population 16 million), there are no laws requiring companies to recycle their electronic waste, although a spokesperson from the government’s National Environment Commission commented to Tierramérica that regulations in this area are on the agenda.

Last year a regulation entered into force for managing hazardous waste, which is a step forward but does not resolve the overall problem. Today, recycling of electronic products depends mainly on individual initiative.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the year the municipality of Vitacura, one of the wealthiest areas of the Chilean capital, launched a pioneering plan for recycling electronic apparatuses.

Recycla is the only Chilean company dedicated to the final disposal of such equipment, passing on cell phone batteries to Hidronor, a local company that handles hazardous waste. The components that cannot be re-used or recycled domestically are exported to Europe for handling by specialised firms.

Mauricio Núñez, of Recycla, told Tierramérica he believes there should be legislation, as there is in Europe and the United States, “in which the companies that sell an item must be responsible for taking back or recycling the units that become obsolete.”

There are several clandestine dumps in Chile, says Núñez, with companies assuring that they recycle electronics, “which isn’t true.”

“I know about a plot in Hijuelas (in Chile’s Fifth Region) where an individual has more than 10,000 cell phone batteries and does not want to take responsibility for their final disposal.”

(*Daniela Estrada is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Mario Osava in Brazil, and Diego Cevallos in Mexico. Originally published Aug. 26 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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