Data Dump

by Bradford Plumer | March 27, 2007

Like many people who don't know much about computers, I assume I'll end up using Vista, Microsoft's latest version of Windows, eventually. Not that I really need it, mind you: My computer use mostly involves trawling the Internet, pecking away on a word processor, watching political ads on YouTube, and playing music. My laptop can handle all of that just fine, and, in theory, it should be able to keep whirring along for another decade. But I figure that's just the way these things work--inevitably, my stuff will become incompatible with stuff on other machines, tech people will refuse to fix my problems, and so on. Sooner or later, a brand-new computer will find its way onto the shopping list.

Apparently I'm not alone. A recent survey by Softchoice Corporation found that only half of all business computers in North America meet the minimum requirements for Microsoft's new operating system. Many of those machines can be upgraded, true, but many will just get replaced entirely. In the United Kingdom, analysts estimate that only about 5 percent of household PCs are capable of enjoying the "full Vista experience" --whatever that entails -- and so more than 10 million computers will be tossed out in the next two years alone. As James Fallows dryly observed The Atlantic Monthly, "The debut of a new operating system usually leads to a surge in PC sales [and so] component makers like Intel and AMD prosper when Microsoft puts a new Windows on sale."

Onward and upward, right? That's progress for you? But as environmental groups have long pointed out, all of this junking creates a fair amount of havoc. About half of all discarded computers (and a large number of "recycled" machines) simply get shipped off to developing countries like China, India, and Nigeria, where salvagers and scavengers use appalling means to "process" the waste--burning lead-tin circuit boards, dipping parts in acid to retrieve gold, and pouring out the resultant sludge into rivers and streams. Since the regulations for treating waste over there aren't exactly cutting edge, toxic materials like lead, cadmium, and mercury get dumped into the environment in alarming qualities, leading to a rash of health problems. Little wonder that the Basel Action Network (BAN), the leading group monitoring the trade in toxic wastes, has been sending out frantic press releases decrying the coming "tsunami" of electronic waste that will result from the release of Vista.

The problem's not unsolvable. In January, Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, argued in The New York Times that the United States could, if it so chose, "restrict the use of hazardous materials in computers, require manufacturers to put in place recycling programs ... and ban hazardous waste exports." The European Union has already adopted those very measures, but it's not likely to inspire copycats. In fact, if Japan is any indication, the trends are moving in the opposite direction, and developed countries are stepping up their efforts to export toxic waste abroad.

Most free-trade agreements don't exactly lack for critics. But the recently negotiated bilateral pact between Thailand and Japan this year has taken particular abuse for a handful of toxic-waste provisions buried deep in the document. NGOs and environmental activists have pointed out that the deal would make it much easier for Japan to transfer its hazardous waste--including both incinerated municipal waste and refuse from hospitals and chemical plants--over to Thailand. Already, the Southeast Asian country has begun accepting more and more toxic waste shipments from Japan, its largest foreign investor. And, although Thailand has decent environmental laws on the books, they aren't always enforced: Industry analysts have estimated that, in 2001, less than 10 percent of the country's one million tons of hazardous waste was processed and disposed of properly. The rest was just dumped into rivers, open fields, and the sea.

Thailand isn't alone: Japan also prevailed on the Philippines to eliminate their own tariffs on hazardous-waste imports as part of their recent Economic Partnership Agreement (Filipino negotiators acquiesced in order to win concessions elsewhere, such as on immigration quotas for nurses). The Philippines' environmental ministry pored over the pact and found that it allowed for the import of at least 141 items that were "deemed potentially hazardous to health and the environment if not handled properly." Like Thailand, the Philippines is ill-equipped to handle most of the waste it receives--open dumps and chemical-bleached stream are a common sight. In order to persuade its Senate to ratify the treaty, the government has promised that no toxic waste will enter the Philippines without its permission. Few observers buy it. "[The] government's track record, admittedly, does not merit that trust so far," said Filipino economist Cielto Habito, who worked on a study that paved the way for the trade deal.

Technically, there are rules governing this sort of thing. Over 160 countries have signed the Basel Convention regulating the international shipment of hazardous waste. The treaty was adopted in 1989--two years after an Italian firm dispatched 8,000 drums of chemical waste to Koko, Nigeria, where workers handling the cargo suffered from burns, vomiting of blood, and partial paralysis. But the treaty has few enforcement mechanisms, save for in Europe. In March, BAN fired off a noncompliance notice to Japan over the trade agreements, but it likely won't have much effect. Many countries that serve as dumping grounds--such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines--have yet to sign on. And many developed nations, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Korea, openly oppose any sort of enforceable global ban on toxic-waste exports. (The United States still hasn't ratified the original convention, in no small part due to industry lobbying.)

The prospects for a stronger toxic-waste treaty look dim, especially as industrialized countries face mounting pressure to export their waste. Japan illustrates the dilemma quite nicely. The Japanese economy depends heavily on hyperactive consumerism--people constantly buying new gadgets and gizmos and throwing out their old toys. But all that trash has to go somewhere: The country has been running out of space for new landfill sites and so ends up burning nearly 50 million tons of solid garbage each year, leading to dioxin levels in the atmosphere that are six to seven times higher than in Europe. In 2002, the Japanese government finally cracked down and passed stricter dioxin-emissions standards, but businesses have worried that the cost of waste management will hurt their ability to compete on the global market, leading to a rise in illegal dumping of industrial waste at home, and increasing calls to simply send the stuff abroad. (It's no coincidence that between 2002 and 2004, Japanese waste exports to Thailand rose from 54 tons a year to 350,000.)

Free-trade agreements are certainly an expedient way for wealthier countries to deal with their garbage crises. Ever since Larry Summers first quipped that "under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted," some economists have hinted that such deals could even prove beneficial for everyone involved. In the case of the Thailand-Japan deal, advocates suggested that the waste trade could lead to new and badly needed investments in Thailand's hazardous-waste-disposal sectors. That's certainly conceivable, although such development would presumably take years--in the meantime, the toxic waste would pile high. (Not to mention the fact that Japanese multinationals have played an increasingly active role in lobbying against stricter environmental regulations in Thailand.)

Japan's approach to the waste trade may be catching on. According to BAN, many developed countries are increasingly looking for loopholes to circumvent the Basel Convention. Some toxins can be exported, for instance, if they're labeled as recyclables. Not surprisingly, many items are wrongly declared: The Philippines continues to receive an influx of lead-acid batteries, whose contents are stripped for lead by so-called "recyclers" and then dumped in rivers and streams. Even the EU is having trouble staying on the virtuous side: The United Kingdom "illegally" shipped nearly 23,000 tons of electronic waste to parts of Southeast Asia, China, and India in 2003, according to the British Environment Agency. Imagine what will happen when Vista catches on.

At some point in the future, presumably, an incident on the scale of the chemical disaster in Koko will erupt, and momentum will start building for an enforceable global treaty that will actually force industrialized companies to deal with their own waste problems (and allow them to regulate manufacturers without worrying about losing their competitive edge). Until then--among other things--new operating systems will continue to hit the stores, computers will be bought and discarded like candy, and the "tsunami" of trash will go on unabated.

Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic.

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