Toxic exports: the international waste trade


By Tom Kelly

In response to pollution scandals and toxic disasters, in the 1980s the rich industrialised countries of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) adopted relatively strict regulations governing the disposal of solid and hazardous wastes within their borders.

In the USA, for example, 2700 land fills have been closed due to the strengthening of environmental laws, and another 100,000 sites require investigation and clean-up operations which are likely to cost up to US$400 billion.

These stricter environmental controls have dramatically increased the costs of disposal of toxic waste. The cost of disposing of a tonne of hazardous waste in land fills in the US rose from $15 in 1980 to $250 in 1989. In Germany the cost of incinerating a tonne of hazardous waste, depending on the type, ranges from US$700 to $6450.

The OECD countries (which in 1990 produced 98% of the world's 300 to 400 million tonnes of toxic waste) while imposing some controls on waste disposal, failed to address the fundamental problem: the production of toxic waste in the first place. Tougher disposal regulations and higher disposal costs within the OECD countries, rather than overcoming the waste problem, have left waste producers the option of exporting their waste to countries without such strict controls.

A Greenpeace report released in January, titled "The Waste Invasion of Asia", details the evolution of the international waste trade, and documents its extent and its impact on Asian countries in the '90s.

As the report points out, if industry had been required to minimise waste generation by switching to clean production technologies, there would be no basis for the huge global waste trade that currently exists. To quote the report, "waste trade is nothing more than ... a search for the cheapest and easiest dumping ground".

Many Third World countries have responded to the irresponsibility of waste generators by imposing national and regional waste import bans. In the early 1980s, for example, Africa was regarded as an easy target for the dumping of a whole range of hazardous materials, including industrial, pharmaceutical and radioactive wastes, as well as banned pesticides and toxic incinerator ash. Since 51 African countries entered a regional agreement banning all waste imports in January 1991, the international toxic traders have directed most of their efforts elsewhere.

By the beginning of this year, 103 countries had banned the import of hazardous wastes, but only one of these countries is in Asia. This makes the Asian region a vulnerable target.

Since 1990, Australian, North American and European countries have shipped over 5 million tonnes of toxic wastes to Asia, mostly "scrap metal", but also including large quantities of plastic and lead wastes, cadmium, aluminium, copper, tin, nickel, zinc, ash and residues, medical wastes, "electrojunk" and other hazardous and radioactive wastes.

Greenpeace makes the point that with the cost of waste disposal within the OECD countries becoming extremely expensive, the governments of many of these countries "are promoting the international waste trade as a means of ridding their territories of their own toxics".

The export of waste from OECD countries is governed by laws, but these are weak and riddled with loopholes. In fact, waste exports from these countries are increasing, despite the 1989 adoption of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program.

The key loophole in the Basel Convention is that it allows waste to be exported to the less industrialised countries if the waste is destined for "recycling". The report explains that "the vast majority of waste trade involves some pretext of 'recycling'".

Even in the Philippines, the one country in Asia that has banned the import, storage or transport of all nuclear or toxic wastes, the pretext of "recycling" is used to circumvent these controls.

Greenpeace documents more than 64,000 tonnes of toxic waste shipments to the Philippines between 1990 and 1993. Over 27,000 tonnes of this came from Australia. The total waste shipments included almost 30,000 tonnes of lead and over 7000 tonnes of plastic waste.

One example of a supposed recycling operation was the export by a German company of 50 tonnes of copper sludge, contaminated with arsenic and other toxins, to the Philippines in September 1993. The steel drums were labelled with a skull and crossbones, and were characterised as "corrosive and poison". Legal disposal in Germany would have cost at least US$900 per tonne.

The manager of the company that produced the waste told German authorities that the sludge consisted of 50% tellurium, a rare metal that would be recovered by the recipient company in the Philippines and re-exported to Germany.

It was not clear how the wastes were to be processed or who would take delivery of the recovered material. There was no mention of the fate of the remaining 50% of toxic residues that were supposed to be separated out in the Philippines. Furthermore, it was not clear why the recovery of tellurium should not be done in Germany, since the waste generating company had a reprocessing unit for tellurium in Hamburg, where it would surely do the operation if it were profitable at all.

Greenpeace research revealed that the world consumption of tellurium is about 200 tonnes per annum, and although the alleged amount of tellurium recoverable from the waste sent to the Philippines was 25 tonnes, the Philippines is not mentioned in global trade statistics as a producer of tellurium at all. Greenpeace concluded, "It therefore seems to be a total fraud and just another cheap dump in a less industrialised country with reprocessing as an excuse".

Over the last four years, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada have exported a total of more than 5.4 million tonnes of toxic wastes to Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and China.

Information on the waste trade is difficult to obtain from many governments, and Greenpeace regards its figures as work in progress, representing "only a fraction of the waste invasion that is sweeping into Asia".

For example, the Australian government "does not know" how much hazardous waste leaves our ports. Waste sent for "recycling" and recovery operations is not controlled by Australian legislation. The Greenpeace inventory, however, documents over 80,000 tonnes of toxic waste shipments from Australia to 10 Asian countries. This includes hazardous plastic scrap, lead car batteries, metal scrap and other hazards.

Greenpeace points out that the Australian Chamber of Manufactures and the mining industry strongly oppose any change of policy to control hazardous waste exports.

The parties to the Basel Convention will meet in Geneva on March 20 to review the continuing export of hazardous waste under the guise of recycling. Fourteen of the 24 OECD countries and moe than 100 non-OECD countries will be calling for a total ban on all toxic waste exports, under any pretext, from OECD to non-OECD countries.

At the 1992 Basel Convention meeting in Uruguay, a comment by the head of India's delegation highlighted the hypocrisy of the waste-exporting countries. He told the meeting that "industrial countries have been asking us to do many things for the global good — to stop cutting down our forests, to stop using your CFCs — now we are asking you to do something for the global good: keep your own waste."

Australia is among the handful of heavily industrialised countries that have been blocking the adoption of a ban on waste exports within the Basel Convention. The other countries obstructing it are the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, Finland and Britain.

It is a telling indictment of our economic and political system that those countries most able to afford to invest in clean production technology, real recycling and environmental safeguards, are the ones standing in the way of these very changes that are vital to our well-being and that of future generations.