The Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) says it has determined that two non-working computer devices left at consumer take-back desks at Australia-based Officeworks Ltd. were exported to developing countries in Asia in what BAN calls a “likely contravention of international law.”
As part of a study titled “Illegal Export of e-Waste from Australia: a story as told by GPS trackers,” BAN delivered used computing equipment with GPS trackers to what the organization calls government-sanctioned consumer drop-off locations in Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth and Sydney. BAN then monitored the signals sent by the devices over the course of a year.
Most of the equipment ended up in the hands of recyclers or was shipped to landfills and stopped signaling. However, according to BAN, two LCD (liquid crystal display) monitors containing mercury back-lights that were handed over to a pair of Officeworks stores in Brisbane (presumably for domestic recycling) were instead exported. Both devices went to Hong Kong, with one moving next to Thailand.
According to BAN, the export of items containing mercury and other toxic substances should be strictly controlled under the terms of the Basel Convention, to which Australia is a signatory. China, including Hong Kong, is also a Basel party and has strictly forbidden the import of any obsolete device containing mercury, according to the organization.
“These exports should never have happened,” says Jim Puckett, BAN’s founder and director. “It stands to reason that this discovery represents far more volume than simply two devices. It is imperative that the Australian government conduct a full review of their consumer takeback programs, and prosecute any violators for criminal trafficking in hazardous waste.”
BAN followed the GPS signals to Hong Kong and on to Thailand. The site in Hong Kong had been cleaned out and was likely just a temporary staging area, according to the group. In Thailand, BAN says it found what it calls “a large ‘dioxin factory,’” where obsolete electronic items were broken apart, and the removed circuit boards were processed with “crude chemical and smelting techniques” in an effort to extract the gold and copper.
BAN assessed the operation as being “extremely polluting,” as plumes of smoke from the burning circuit boards would contain dioxins, furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals. The smoke and its particles would eventually descend “over the observed local crops of rice, castor beans and mangos,” says BAN.
Additionally, sludge from the aqua-regia chemical acid stripping process was dumped into an on-site sludge pond and, combined with the open dumping of ashes and slags from the smelter, “was certain to contaminate the groundwater,” writes BAN.
In its report, BAN urges Australia to ratify an agreement known as the Basel Ban Amendment, designed to forbid the export of hazardous waste for any reason from developed to developing countries. The Ban Amendment needs three more countries as signatories before it enters into legal force, according to the U.S.-based group.
“We call on Australia to join the European Union in ratifying the Basel Ban Amendment,” says Puckett. “In so doing,” he continues, Australia would then “renounce using [its] global neighborhood as a dumping ground, and instead use Australian ingenuity and wealth to once and for all embrace national self-sufficiency in waste management, as called for by the Basel Convention.”