IN A sharp policy departure from the norm, the Clinton administration has proposed banning exports of all hazardous wastes outside North America. If the US Congress approves, it will overturn a tradition of steadfastly parrying moves to curb waste dumping on developing countries. However, there is a catch. As Carol Browner, head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, puts it, "Safe, recyclable waste, such as plastics, textiles and paper would be exempt" from the ban.
The environmental group Greenpeace has its doubts about the US proposition. The organisation is especially wary of the clause exempting the export of waste "if it can be processed more economically or in a more environmentally sound manner in another country". Such an exemption, Greenpeace believes, would still leave the Third World vulnerable to hazardous waste dumping by industrialised countries. As it is, the 1989 Basle Convention to curb waste trade has proved to be singularly ineffective because of numerous loopholes.
Greenpeace has already rung alarm bells about the toxic waste trade. Its recent report, The Waste Invasion of Asia, cites scary statistics to demonstrate the enormous volumes of Western toxic wastes that threaten to swamp Asia. Quoting a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the report states that an estimated 300 to 400 million tonnes of hazardous waste, such as plastic, metal and computer scrap, were generated globally in 1990. Ninety eight per cent of the junk came from the 24 countries that form the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Greenpeace"s own findings are frightening. For example, between 1990 and 1993, Australia, Canada, Germany, the UK and the US dumped more than 5.4 million tonnes of toxic waste in Asian countries such as Bangladesh, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Malaysia. Similarly, more than 50,000 tonnes of lead waste and over 100,000 tonnes of plastic waste were dispatched to 11 Asian countries, with Hong Kong, India, Indonesia and the Philippines importing the bulk of the plastic.
The Bangladesh example
One of the more shocking instances of this one-way gunk trade listed by Greenpeace is that of Bangladesh. In 1992, the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation imported 3,150 tonnes of "fertiliser" from Stoller Chemical Co, a US firm, totally unaware that toxic copper smelting furnace dust had been mixed with it. Tests showed the fertiliser contained dangerous amounts of lead, which causes neurological problems in children, and cadmium, which causes kidney problems and cancer.
Despite a warning by the UNEP, over 1,000 tonnes of the toxic fertiliser were distributed and used on rice fields before the Bangladesh government reportedly stopped distributing it. The remaining 2,000 tonnes are presently stored in Bangladesh.
The Greenpeace report could not have been more timely. The member-countries of the Basle Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal were to meet in Geneva in March to review the continuing export of hazardous wastes -- under the guise of recycling -- from OECD countries to non-OECD countries. Although 14 of the 24 OECD nations and over 100 non-OECD countries favour a complete ban on toxic waste exports, according to Greenpeace, the hardline attitude of the seven heavily industrialised nations -- UK, USA, Canada, Finland, Germany, Australia and Japan -- has scuttled any such move. However, the proposed US ban on waste exports is interpreted widely as a sign that the Clinton administration will now become a signatory to the Convention. A closer scrutiny of the Basle Convention, formulated under the auspices of the UNEP, is long overdue. The Convention has failed abysmally to ban hazardous waste exports from rich to less-industrialised countries because it allows such export on the grounds of "recycling". The industrialised countries have been quick to take advantage of this loophole.
At the first meeting of the Basle Convention held at Piripolis, Uruguay, in November 1992, the Indian delegation made an impassioned -- though unsuccessful -- plea to end all trade in wastes. The double standards of the OECD countries came in for sharp attack by A Bhattacharjya, the head of the Indian delegation, who said, "You 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."
In India, there is a slow and belated recognition of the hazards of waste dumping. India imports waste from many countries, including Australia, Canada, the US and the UK. In 1993, 7.8 million kg of plastic waste made its way to the country from the US and 33.6 million kg of metal waste (other than lead) came from Australia in 1992.
Says Karan Singh, president of the People"s Commission on Environment and Development India, "As long as the rich countries can cheaply dump their problems on their global neighbours, they will never have a reason for doing the responsible thing -- which is preventing waste generation at home through clean production methods."
However, there is little hope at present of a decline in the waste trade. Greenpeace research reveals that the world waste trade business, which began in the mid-"80s, is proliferating. Since 1986, more than 1,000 attempts have been made to export over 160 million tonnes of waste. Of these, over 10 million tonnes of waste have actually been exported.
The industrialised countries have high stakes in the waste trade. For one, in the aftermath of huge toxic disasters, like the dioxin pollution scandals in Seveso, Italy, and Love Canal, New York, OECD countries have adopted stringent and expensive regulations for the disposal of solid and hazardous wastes in their own countries. Tightened environmental laws in the US have led to the closure of around 2,700 landfills and at least 100,000 other sites in that country require various degrees of investigation and clean-up. The cost of cleaning up these sites is expected to touch $400 billion.
An indicator of the phenomenal escalation in the cost of toxic waste disposal is the expense incurred in landfilling hazardous waste in the US -- it increased from $15 a tonne in 1980 to $250 per tonne in 1989. Similarly, in Germany, the cost of incinerating hazardous waste ranges between DM 1,200 per tonne ($700) and DM 11,000 ($6,450) per tonne, depending on the type of waste.
Other factors contributing to the boom are the sheer amounts of toxic wastes generated by these countries and the reduced spaces available for waste disposal. In Sydney, Australia, for instance, the state minister for the environment has predicted that the city will run out of landfill space in seven years.
Asia is the last frontier in the West"s toxic waste trade. This is largely because most other countries have forcefully shut their doors to waste. Currently, 103 countries have prohibited imports of hazardous waste. In 1991, 51 African countries signed a regional agreement banning all waste imports. According to the Greenpeace report, four other regional groupings are drafting legislations for similar bans. These are the Barcelona Convention (Mediterranean), the South Pacific Forum, the South East Pacific coastal states of Latin America and the UN Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean.
Although Southeast Asian countries have expressed their intention to ban the import of hazardous wastes, according to Greenpeace, only one country in Asia -- the Philippines -- has a law to deal with the problem. Even there, enforcement remains a problem. Despite the rules, US industries alone shipped more than 6 millions kg of plastic waste to the Philippines in 1991.
There are many categories of toxic wastes that find their way to Asia, according to Greenpeace.
Greenpeace"s report is a powerful indictment of the waste disposal methods of the industrialised world. It also calls for Asia to be on guard against unscrupulous dumping and to enact tougher laws to prohibit such imports.