The trade in hazardous waste


The decision, on September 18, by signatories to the 1992 the Basle Convention to further regulate the trade in toxic waste is a limited step forward.
The Geneva meeting was convened to decide whether to add an amendment, the "ban decision", to the convention, whose full name is the Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The amendment was designed to stop wealthy countries from disposing of their hazardous wastes — 98% of the world's total — in the Third World. It would halt the trade in recyclable hazardous wastes from December 31, 1997.
Prior to the meeting, Australia, the US, New Zealand, Canada and Korea, acting on behalf of industrial waste producers and traders, had been lobbying hard to allow the continued dumping of recyclable hazardous wastes in the Third World. Despite this concerted push against the amendment, a consensus was finally reached among the 87 signatories — but only after some compromises were made.
While the Geneva decision will curtail much of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries' trade in hazardous waste, it will not end it.
The Financial Review reported that Australian business was happy with the outcome, which will allow OECD countries to trade in "recoverable" and "recyclable" hazardous materials with each other. As well, "criteria" will be set for such trade between developed and underdeveloped countries.
Trade with countries which are not signatories to the Basle Convention will be allowed only if "special agreements" are reached.
Despite the convention's general principles, the compromise will ensure that a poor country such as the Philippines, a signatory of the Basle convention, will have little economic option but to continue to buy large quantities of Australia's spent lead-acid batteries despite a Philippines government decree which bans all hazardous waste imports.
Australia is also the main source of lead-acid batteries imported by Indonesia.
Both Indonesia and the Philippines lack adequate worker and environmental safety requirements. Greenpeace has reported severe lead contamination of soil and river sediments as well as high levels of toxic metals in workers and villagers residing close to smelters. This situation is unlikely to change under the amended convention.
Australia exports about $200 million worth of hazardous waste a year; $40 million of that goes to non-OECD countries. There is concern that the Australian government has been pressuring non-OECD countries in the region to enter exclusive bilateral agreements to continue with this dirty trade.
Contrary to Australian government propaganda, the majority of waste exported is for final dumping, not recycling. Australia, like most other developed countries, dumps wastes from its dirty industries on countries which can least afford the necessary equipment to dispose of it safely.
The very poor worker health and safety conditions throughout the Third World should be enough of an argument for rich countries to ban the export of hazardous materials — for final disposal or for recycling.
While the Basle Convention's extension is important, it is not enough. The environment and union movements should insist that the Australian government not exploit the loopholes in the convention, including redefining what is regarded as "hazardous" waste, and work within the spirit of the agreement.
Alliance building between trade unions and environment movements and their counterparts in the region would also play an important part in stemming the trade in hazardous materials.

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