From PCs to ships: UN meet tackles toxic waste

Nairobi, Nov 27 | Updated: Nov 28 2006, 05:30am hrs
Delegates from some 120 nations met in Kenya on Monday to tackle the growing global threat from hazardous waste including toxic chemicals, obsolete electronics and rust-bound ships and aircraft.

The main focus of five days of talks is the mounting problem of so-called e-waste - obsolete computers, mobile telephones and televisions shipped mostly to the developing world, where many are dumped and burned at open air sites.

We have managed to create yet another problem on this planet, Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said at the opening of the conference, which gathers parties to the Basel Convention that monitors hazardous waste. One of the great challenges of our time is to collectively agree on what is waste and what are secondhand products. This question extends to end-of-life ships as much as electronic goods.

Proposals on the table this week include making manufacturers take financial responsibility for their products, from the design stage to final disposal. Delegates will also seek to tighten international waste regulations to prevent a repeat of the disaster in Ivory Coast in August, when 10 people were killed after toxic petrol slops were tipped around its main city Abidjan.

Steiner said that brazen case of hazardous waste dumping in one of the worlds poorest nations was a sad reminder of the inability of governments to protect their civilians, and he said it should spur the talks toward concrete solutions. Participants will also discuss what to do about a huge growth in the number of hyperbulk items mostly old planes and ships due to be scrapped over the coming years.

According to new figures published by UNEP, almost a third of the 25,000 large civil aircraft now in service will be dismantled in the next 10 to 15 years. The number scrapped is expected to increase to more than 35,000 by 2035, it says.

New tanker rules following oil spills in Europe in 1999 and 2002 will mean some 2,200 ships many carrying asbestos and other hazardous materials will end service in Europe by 2010. Another 1,800 will be scrapped in North America, Brazil and China, UNEP says. In 2004, Basel classified old ships as toxic waste, but delegates have difficult choices to make. Countries like Bangladesh, whose workers currently break down more than half the worlds old ships, fear tougher environmental protection laws could force them out of jobs.