National Geographic : 2008 Jan
international regulatory net. The 1989 Basel Convention, a 170-nation accord, requires that developed nations notify developing nations of incoming hazardous waste shipments. Environ mental groups and many undeveloped nations called the terms too weak, and in 1995 protests led to an amendment known as the Basel Ban, which forbids hazardous waste shipments to poor countries. Though the ban has yet to take effect, the European Union has written the require ments into its laws. The EU also requires manufacturers to shoul der the burden of safe disposal. Recently a new EU directive encourages "green design" of elec tronics, setting limits for allowable levels of lead, mercury, fire retardants, and other substances. Another directive requires manufacturers to set up infrastructure to collect e-waste and ensure responsible recycling-a strategy called take back. In spite of these safeguards, untold tons of e-waste still slip out of European ports, on their way to the developing world. In the United States, electronic waste has been less of a legislative priority. One of only three countries to sign but not ratify the Basel Conven tion (the other two are Haiti and Afghanistan), 74 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC . JANUARY 2008 it does not require green design or take-back programs of manufacturers, though a few states have stepped in with their own laws. The U.S. approach, says Matthew Hale, EPA solid waste program director, is instead to encourage responsible recycling by working with industry -for instance, with a ratings system that rewards environmentally sound products with a seal of approval. "We're definitely trying to channel market forces, and look for cooperative approaches and consensus standards," Hale says. The result of the federal hands-off policy is that the greater part of e-waste sent to domes tic recyclers is shunted overseas. "We in the developed world get the benefit from these devices," says Jim Puckett, head of Basel Action Network, or BAN, a group that opposes hazardous waste shipments to develop ing nations. "But when our equipment becomes unusable, we externalize the real environmen tal costs and liabilities to the developing world." ASIA IS THE CENTER of much of the world's high tech manufacturing, and it is here the devices often return when they die. China in particular has long been the world's electronics graveyard.