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Circular economy will work if supported by favourable and efficient national laws

The recent success of the circular economy approach to materials management is nothing short of amazing: it appears to be omnipresent these days. In June, the first World Circular Economy Forum took place in Helsinki, with the aim of kick-starting the transition towards a circular economy. In May, BIR, the global recyclers’ association, announced the organization of the first Global Recycling Day on 8 March 2018. BIR President Ranjit Baxi presented his vision of recyclables as the planet’s 7th important resource, in addition to water, air, coal, natural gas, and minerals. There is a multitude of similar initiatives around the globe. Considering that not so long ago, waste was at the very bottom of the political agenda, this is not a step but a leap forward.

The circular economy has definitely moved from the realm of wishful thinking to becoming a generally embraced objective for both policy and the corporate world. But while companies are developing technologies that can make it happen, the law often lags behind. A jungle of complex and contradictory legal rules in countries around the world makes it extremely difficult and costly for a legitimate operator to move used electronics across national borders for centralized repair and refurbishment, while illegal traders can very easily exploit the loopholes. A development project aiming to turn dirty recycling into a clean business that provides a livelihood for local people is confronted with a prohibition on the import of the material to be recycled. These are but two examples.

Last year, I had the pleasure of co-editing a book with interdisciplinary authorship from academia and practice, which investigates the potential of waste becoming a pilot area for a green economy. The key conclusion is that the first step must be the creation of a legal and economic framework conducive to investment in the relevant operations.

The law is, by its very nature, slow in encompassing new ideas, approaches, and realities. And yet legal frameworks that support a circular economy on the ground are urgently needed for taking the crucial step from policy support to implementation on the ground. The next leap forward will depend on national laws catching up with the requirements of a circular economy.



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Green Economy: Bridging the gap between talk and practice

Nowadays, not a week goes by without a think tank somewhere in the world discussing ways of achieving a decent life for a growing world population without destroying the planet. This was debated at the World Resources Forum in Peru in October. In Switzerland, the Green Economy Symposium in November explored how a green economy can become an international market driver for this high tech but resource poor country. Also in November, the Global Green Growth Institute in South Korea held an international conference on The Nexus between Creative Economy and Green Growth.

These are but three recent examples. Never before have so many people around the globe devoted their time, energy and brain power to reflecting on a sustainable future for all. The multitude of conferences produces a multitude of interesting and worthwhile recommendations. But unfortunately, these generally do not go beyond the outcome documents of the meetings.

Green Economy

Publications and talks abound…

At the same time, private companies, research institutions, development banks, international organizations and foundations collectively spend millions in research, technology development, and projects “on the ground” that could both provide a basis for the think tanks and benefit from their outcomes.

There is definitely a missing link here. Finding it could finally achieve the move from talk to action that has been advocated for many years. Personally, I believe this will require a joint effort of a “think tank organizer” and an “implementer” of green economy work – for example, an international organization and a multinational company. Both would have to be ready to assume leadership in exploring new ways of doing things. A good start might be the elaboration of practical templates and tools for the implementation “on the ground” of conference recommendations, based on successful projects.  As a next step, an initiative could be launched with like-minded entities to build conference recommendations into existing project portfolios on a broader scale, using the practical tools and templates developed, and to share practical experiences with policy processes to make their outcomes more action-oriented and concrete.

Anyone prepared to take a lead on this will move things forward in a big way, and emerge as a real Green Economy leader!

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…. but only by linking conferences and practice will it become a reality!


Bringing academic research to the negotiating table

I sometimes think academics and government negotiators live in separate worlds when it comes to advancing the international policy agenda. Academics do intensive research; present in-depth analyses; and propose ways to resolve complex issues. Negotiators prepare briefs; try to reconcile diverging interests within their own countries; hold informal talks with their counterparts in other governments; and sit through long and exhausting international debates. Academic thinking rarely finds its way to the negotiating tables of the world, while political realities and constraints often are not considered in academic research.

Having a foot in both worlds, I believe I understand some of the reasons: academics cannot spare the time and money to attend international negotiations, while negotiators are simply too busy to subscribe to and regularly read academic journals.

Blog conf 29-10-14               Blog acad 29-10-14

An initiative by the Review of European Community and International Law (RECIEL) may help address at least the second of these constraints. As government representatives from around the world meet in Bangkok next week to debate preparations for the entry into force of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, RECIEL offers one month of  free access to its latest issue, devoted to chemicals management. Among other things, the issue features two articles on the Minamata Convention. I hope that during their flight to Bangkok, some negotiators might find time to relax and see what RECIEL’s contributors have to say. Who knows, some of it may thus find its way into the conference room!

The chemicals issue of RECIEL is available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/reel.2014.23.issue-2/issuetoc.


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First meeting of SERI Board of Directors

The Board of Directors of Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI) held its first face-to-face meeting in Washington DC from 26-27 June 2014, following SERI’s official launch on 5 June 2014. SERI is the new host organization of the highly suscessful R2 Standard for electronics recycling (over 500 companies in 17 countries certified), successor to R2 Solutions, with the additional mandate of promoting safe, sensible and sustainable electronics recycling globally (http://www.sustainableelectronics.org). Accordingly, this first meeting of the Board was crucial in paving the way forward. Directors looked at the broad picture, discussing SERI’s mission and vision, but also focused on deliverables such as the SERI/R2 Database, the R2 Leader Program, Quality Assurance and Control for the R2 Standard, steps to undertake for SERI to go global, the charter of the R2 Technical Advisory Committee, and SERI’s future international policy initiatives. Exciting times for a young and dynamic organization dedicated to ensuring that used electronics are managed in an environmentally sound manner around the world! It is a pleasure to be a part of this promising effort!

Members of the SERI Board of Directors at its first face-to-face meeting, Washington DC, USA, 27 June 2014

Members of the SERI Board of Directors at its first face-to-face meeting, Washington DC, USA, 27 June 2014

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A fresh outlook on used electronics: new documentary in the making

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by two enthusiastic young film makers, Juan Solera and Albert Julia, for the documentary they are producing on the management of e-waste in a globalized world. Before meeting them, I had thought this theme was pretty much exhausted: the dismal conditions in which poor people in some parts of Africa dismantle obsolete electronics imported from the developed world are already well documented in films and photos. Albert and Juan’s film will of course also look at these. But beyond that, they want it to show the broader picture with all its complexities and contradictions. They showed me segments featuring interviews with a Ghanian government official, a Ghanian journalist, and a Nigerian business man accused of illegal e-waste traffic for exporting functional used electronic equipment from Europe to his home country for resale. They will talk to the lawyers involved in the case. They went to see the conditions in the home village of a waste picker. They wanted to know the role of international policy, what it can and cannot do, and how it could be improved – including a detailed explanation of how an international treaty works. It is a real pleasure to be a small part of this effort to look beyond the obvious, go beyond the well-trodden paths. I much look forward to seeing the finished product, which I hope will show that reuse and recycling of electronics in today’s globalized world is more than “dumping on the poor”.


Brussels Green Week 3-5 June 2014: “Waste should not exist!”

The 14th edition of the Brussels Green Week, organized by the European Commission and focusing on the theme of “Circular Economy: Saving Resources, Creating Jobs” (www.ec.europa.eu/greenweek), was a real highlight. During my tenure as Executive Secretary of the Basel Convention on hazardous wastes (2007-12), one of my main aims was to help get waste recognized as a serious global problem rather than being relegated to the bottom of the international environmental agenda. Not an easy task at the time. Nor was it easy to make the case for waste being a potentially valuable resource if properly managed – and thus being turned from a problem into a solution. At the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, the notion of a Green Economy met with skepticism.

Opening session

Opening session

Against this background, it was uplifting to hear European Commissioner Janez Potocnik state, in his opening speech, that “waste should not exist” – because in a circular economy, resources could be renewed forever. Perhaps a somewhat overly optimistic outlook, but one that shows that opinions, in places where it matters, have indeed evolved in the two years since Rio+20.

Putting the week's theme into practice

Putting the week’s theme into practice

The Commissioner portrayed transition to a circular economy as the logical choice for Europe – a resource-poor, densely populated part of the world with an ageing society – in competing on the global market. The notion that this is not only about “doing the right thing”, but also makes good economic sense, was echoed by other speakers. Hearing thought leaders from across Europe and other parts of the world talk about why and how to make a circular economy a reality made me feel optimistic – given that such a concept would have been seen as belonging in dream land not all that long ago! And given my work to bring waste management up on the international agenda, I was actually delighted to hear several speakers note that “a circular economy is not only about waste management”: for once, waste was taking too much of the center stage! Small miracles happen in international sustainability policy, even if they are not the kind that make the headlines.

Waste recycling as a Saturday family outing in my home town in Switzerland (population 12'000)

Waste recycling as a Saturday family outing in my home town in Switzerland (population 12’000)

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The Basel Ban Amendment: myth and reality

Everybody has seen the photos that have gone around the world of an Asian toddler sitting on the ground amidst landfill piles of e-waste, and African children burning computer wiring to extract copper. Looking at these pictures, one cannot but feel outrage. NGOs have for years made great efforts to halt the export of e-wastes from developed to developing countries, by “naming and shaming” the perceived perpetrators: industrialized countries and their associated industries.

However, over the past decade, we entered a new global paradigm. Electronics are increasingly produced and consumed outside of the traditional developed countries. Used electronic products are traded around the globe, not just from North to South. There are environmentally sound facilities located throughout the world that are capable of refurbishing and recycling electronic products.

1995 saw the adoption of an amendment to the Basel Convention, the global treaty controlling transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal. Known as the Basel Ban, this Amendment prohibits exports of hazardous wastes from OECD to non-OECD countries. Over the years, many have grown to believe that the Basel Convention, through the Ban, prohibits the export of all used electronics from developed to developing countries. Some greet this notion with relief, convinced that the Basel Ban is putting a stop to “dirty” exports of used electronics to developing countries. Others view it with alarm, believing that all international commercial operations extending the lifespan of electronics, or giving them new life, are now impossible except within the traditional industrialized world.

The reality is somewhat different. First, although the Basel Ban enjoys some political support worldwide, it is not yet in force, and therefore does not constitute international law. If and when it enters into force, it will be binding only on those countries that have ratified it. Second, the Ban will not apply to all used electronic products, but only to those that are considered hazardous wastes under the Basel Convention. The crux lies in determining whether or not a shipment is hazardous, and ensuring environmentally sound management in the country of import.

Today, using poor countries for disposal of e-wastes, or for cheap and irresponsible informal recycling, is universally considered unacceptable. The big question is how to effectively prevent it. Some argue that a blanket ban on used electronics exports is the solution. Unfortunately, the mere existence of a ban will not solve the problem: enforcement is extremely difficult even in the most highly developed countries, to say nothing of developing countries, which often also lack the legislation and institutional framework. Adding to this the reality of corruption in many countries, a ban will merely force the “dirty business” into illegality. For example, European Union legislation has prohibited hazardous e-waste exports to non-EU and non-OECD countries for years, but illegal export to such countries continues on a large scale (to Africa and China, for example). Not only does a blanket ban fail to stop illicit exports, it may also prevent sustainable and desirable transactions that extend the life span of electronic equipment or allow the extraction of valuable resources from used electronic products, and create safe jobs in developing countries.

What is needed is an effective way to prevent the illegal while supporting the legitimate. One option that is being explored by the Basel Convention is the use of standards and certification schemes to ensure that used electronic equipment is treated in a responsible and environmentally sound manner anywhere in the world. Combined with the Basel Convention’s prior informed consent procedure and effective national legislation, these certification schemes could become a key tool to providing a sustainable path forward. This is the type of innovative thinking that we need. What we do not need is a protectionist barrier around non-OECD countries that excludes legitimate trade and sound practices with most of the rest of the world.