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The safe disposal of toxic waste has become a global challenge. Each year, world nations produce 440 million tons of toxic waste. This is a highly conservative estimate, given the clandestine nature of the enterprise and fluid definitions of what constitutes hazardous or toxic waste (the terms are used interchangeably). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines hazardous waste as “a waste with properties that make it dangerous or potentially harmful to human health or the environment” (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2006). Hazardous waste can be liquids, solids, contained gases, sludge, by products of manufacturing processes, or simply discarded commercial products, like cleaning fluids or pesticides.
An international trade has arisen to transfer toxic waste from developed to developing nations. The United Kingdom exported spent mercury to South Africa throughout the 1990s, which claimed at least three lives at a mercury recycling plant, where mercury is removed from waste sludge for reuse. Similarly, the U.S. chemical firm Holtrachem Manufacturing attempted to export 260,000 pounds of spent mercury waste from its U.S. plant in Maine to India in September 2000. The U.S. government defined the spent mercury as a metal with trade value and exempted it from regulations on waste exports. Pressured by environmental advocacy groups, the Indian government refused the shipment and returned it to the United States.
Lawrence Summers’s Memo
Some leaders of global financial institutions have offered economic rationale for trade in toxic waste between developed and developing countries. On December 12, 1991, Lawrence Summers, who served as chief economist at the World Bank, wrote an internal memo that stated the World Bank should “be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs,” referring to less developed countries (Vallette 1999). His argument was threefold: First, “a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages.” Second, as “under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City.” Third, “the concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate [sic] cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostrate cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is 200 per thousand” (Vallette 1999). After the memo became public in February 1992, Brazil’s secretary of the environment, Jose Lutzenberger, wrote to Summers: “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane” (Vallette 1999). Lutzenberger was forced from office shortly afterward.
As indicated in Summers’s memo, according to the Trade and Environment Database,poor African nations have served as the dumping ground for toxic hazardous waste materials, i.e. raw sewage, sludge, incinerated ashes, contaminated oils, chemical substances, acids, poisonous solvents ejected by chemical, pharmaceutical and fertilizer producing plants in the industrialized world… Uncontrolled dumping of toxic wastes in Africa has been traced back to the early 1970s, when reports of clandestine deals between African countries and companies in the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Italy, and the former U.S.S.R. began surfacing (Trade and Environment Database 1996).
The worst victims of this waste shipment have been the African nations of Benin, Nigeria, and Somalia, which became a tempting target for cost-conscious waste traders. On average, the cost of processing toxic waste is as high as $3,000 per ton in industrialized countries, whereas it drops to $5 per ton in developing countries, according to the Trade and Environment Database. In 1987 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) adopted the Cairo Guidelines and Principles for the Environmentally Sound Management of Hazardous Waste, which require toxic-waste exporters to ensure that disposal sites in waste-importing countries meet the safety requirements of national and international regulations.
Basel Convention and Basel Ban Amendment
Two years after the UNEP adopted the Cairo Guidelines, the leaders of 118 governments met in the Swiss town of Basel in 1989 and signed the first-ever global treaty regarding toxic waste, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. As of November 2006, more than 165 countries had ratified it to become international law. The Basel Convention was resented by waste-exporting industries and world governments, however, and they tried to cripple its enforcement. To prevent such efforts, the Basel Convention was amended to ban the trade in toxic waste with immediate effect. In all, 83 countries signed on to the 1995 amendment to the Basel Convention, which is now known as the Basel Ban Amendment. This amendment criminalizes all toxic-waste exports from member nations of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to non-OECD countries, even for recycling. According to the Basel Action Network, more than 90 percent of toxic-waste exports from OECD to non-OECD countries were meant for recycling.
Interestingly, the United States, which is the single largest producer of toxic waste, has ratified neither the Basel Convention nor the Basel Ban Amendment. The country’s refusal rests on the argument that U.S. laws effectively regulate toxic-waste exports. It is true that the United States has one of the toughest legal regimes to protect the environment, including the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or Superfund Act, of 1986. These legal regimes, however, ensure safe disposal of toxic waste only within the United States, and their impact is diluted in regulating waste exports outside the country.
Even the Basel Convention and the Basel Ban Amendment are marred by several loopholes that allow the toxic-waste trade to continue. Some nations try to circumvent the ban on toxic-waste exports by resorting to bilateral agreements, which they argue fall outside the purview of the Basel Ban Amendment. Japan, which is the world’s second-largest economy after the United States, signed bilateral economic partnership agreements (EPAs) in the early 2000s with Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines to evade the ban on toxic-waste exports. These EPAs list hazardous wastes as tariff barriers, which Japan believes need be eliminated. Japan is also using free trade agreements to promote free trade in hazardous wastes. Similarly, some governments and industries attempt to nullify the banned designations of toxic wastes under the Basel Convention under one pretext or another, or define them down to continue toxic-waste exporting. The ultimate enforcers, however, are individual governments that allow waste imports. They can defeat international legislation on toxic-waste trade by being lax in the enforcement of the Basel Ban Amendment for short-term economic gains. A vigorous civic engagement by national and international public interest groups is, therefore, crucial to hold the governments of waste-importing countries to their commitments to halt trade in toxic waste. More important, clean production, minimum waste generation, and waste management within the national limits of waste-producing countries can bring an end to the global trade in toxic waste.
- Basel Action Network. 1998. Why the U.S. Must Ratify the Entire Basel Convention (or Not at All). Briefing Paper No. 2. Seattle, WA: Basel Action Network. http://ban.org/Library/briefing2.html.
- Basel Action Network. 1999. The Basel Ban: A Triumph for Global Environmental Justice. Briefing Paper No. 1. Seattle, WA: Basel Action Network. http://ban.org/Library/briefing1.html.
- Clapp, Jennifer. 2002. Seeping through the Regulatory Cracks:The International Transfer of Toxic Waste. SAIS Review 22 (1): 141–155.
- Japanese Citizen Groups Joint Statement. 2007. Japanese Citizen Groups Urge the Japanese Government to Remove Wastes from EPAs with Developing Countries and to Seek National Self-Sufficiency in Waste Management. February 11.http://www.ban.org/Library/070211_letter.html.
- Knight, Danielle. 2000. Outcry over U.S. Toxic Chemical Shipment to India. Inter Press Service, December 11. http://www.ban.org/ban_news/outcry.html.
- Knight, Danielle. 2001. Controversy around Mercury Shipment from U.S. to India. Inter Press Service, January 25. http://ban.org/ban_news/controversy.html.
- Kockott, Fred. 1994. Wasted Lives: Mercury Waste Recycling at Thor Chemicals. Waste Trade Study No. 4. Amsterdam,
- Netherlands: Greenpeace International and Earthlife Africa. Trade and Environment Database. 1996. Africa Waste Trade. Case No. 315. http://www.american.edu/TED/oauwaste.htm.
- S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2006. Hazardous Waste. http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/osw/hazwaste.htm.
- Vallette, Jim. 1999. Larry Summers’ War against the Earth. New York: Global Policy Forum. http://www.globalpolicy.org/socecon/envronmt/summers.htm.
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