Tech group pushing to ease rules for exporting broken phones

A trade group that represents Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and other tech giants is pushing new language for an international treaty that one watchdog group says could open the floodgates to toxic e-waste exportation.

Workers at an electronics recycling operation in Guangzhou, China, separate plastic, metals, and wires as they pull apart computers. Jay Greene/CNET

A trade group that represents Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and several other device makers is pushing to change international rules to make it easier to ship broken mobile phones and other gadgets to developing nations.

The Information Technology Industry Council is suggesting the changes at this week's meeting of the Basel Convention, which oversees the international treaty intended to prevent international toxic waste dumping. The group is proposing new language in the treaty that could reduce the types of gadgets currently considered electronic waste.

The changes are esoteric shifts in what for most consumers is an obscure international document. But, according to one watchdog group, the implications are significant. The Seattle-based Basel Action Network worries that the trade group's proposed language could lead to a deluge of exporting of gadgets containing toxic lead, cadmium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants to countries ill-equipped to safely dispose of them.

"This is really a very shocking effort to further widen the floodgates of a tide of toxic techno-trash already inundating ports and dumps in Africa and Asia," Basel Action Network Executive Director Jim Puckett said in a statement.

Rick Goss, the trade group's senior vice president of environment and sustainability, dispute's Puckett's claim, accusing him of "knowingly and completely" misrepresenting its position. Instead, Goss said, his organization is keen to facilitate "legitimate repair and reuse" of devices.

"Just because a product is not functioning does not make it a waste, and the ultimate determination needs to take account of many factors," Goss told CNET via email. "To be clear, we are looking to ensure that late-model, valuable used products continue to be permitted to move for safe and appropriate repair and reuse."

In its proposed guidelines for the treaty, the group is asking member nations to change the definition of what is electronic waste. Among other items, it wants warranty returns to companies to be considered "products" rather than "waste," which would allow those goods to be legally exported. The group also wants "used equipment and parts managed for continued use" to be considered products, not waste as well.

"Our key point is that we need to allow a used product to be properly and safely repaired so it can be returned to commerce, and we have made a legitimate series of proposals to accomplish that objective," Goss said.

It's not merely an academic problem. Last year, CNET explored the life cycle of an iPhone, using the device to examine the environmental and workplace challenges of creating consumer electronics. When mobile phones, laptops, and other gadgets fail, they can find their way to dumping grounds in Asia and Africa. There, they are disassembled in primitive ways that are often dangerous to the environment and the laborers picking apart the devices.

That's what has Basel Action Network's Puckett so concerned. Current rules under the treaty -- ratified by 180 countries and the European Union, but not the United States -- prevent the export of electronic equipment that is not functional or not tested as being reparable.

"Truly caring about reuse would mean that manufacturers would make equipment that lasts longer, is upgradable, and does not contain toxic chemicals," Puckett said. "It's all just a bit disingenuous to claim that exporting broken, obsolete toxic equipment to developing countries is best for the environment."

For many of the trade group's members, the cost of recycling returned devices is significant, paying technically sophisticated recyclers to handle spent gadgets. Right now, many tech giants, such as Apple, adhere to modern device recycling standards, promising, for example, to process all the e-waste it collects in the region in which it was received.

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