If you can't treat it, ship it: The UN last week pushed through a treaty to control international trade in toxic waste. It is unlikely to prevent further scandals in an increasingly messy industry

If you can't treat it, ship it: The UN last week pushed through a treaty to control international trade in toxic waste. It is unlikely to prevent further scandals in an increasingly messy industry


By DEBORA MACKENZIE in BRUSSELS LAST year, doctors in the Nigerian town of Koko started seeing patients with unexplained skin rashes, vomiting and headaches. The problems were traced to a dump, where barrels of waste shipped from Italian chemical factories were leaking poisons into the air and water. The discovery touched off a chain of events unprecedented in Africa, where environmental protection is often considered a luxury. The Nigerian government impounded Italian ships, arrested businessmen and threatened death sentences. The Italians took the waste home – only to encounter angry crowds on Italian docksides who tried to keep the waste from being unloaded. The incident was followed by more reports of dangerous dumping in the Third World, ranging from American incinerator ash in Guinea, to Italian chemicals in Leba-non (This Week, 23 June, 1988). The reports re-vealed only a glimpse of a problem that has mushroomed in the past 10 years. There is a booming business in shipping toxic chemical wastes across national boundaries in order to cut the costs of disposal by evading environmental regulations at home. The problem extends far beyond developing countries. In 1982, Europe panicked as 41 barrels of dioxin wastes from a chemical accident at Seveso, Italy, six years earlier were driven to France and hidden in farm sheds. Developing countries so far handle little toxic waste compared to richer countries. But they have fewer controls and are more at risk from improper dumping; they are also under increasing pressure from exporters. In 1986, heads of African governments meeting in Cairo asked the UN Environment Programme to prepare an international treaty on the export of toxic waste. Last week in Switzerland, the UNEP’s treaty was signed. But observers ranging from the environmental group Greenpeace to the OECD, a club of rich nations that had drafted its own proposals, are disappointed. The negotiations, which took just 20 months, were too rushed, they say, for such a complex issue. Even if industrialised countries ratify the treaty – which is still an open question – it may do little to ensure that waste crosses borders to make disposal safer, rather than sloppier. Hard figures on the trade in toxic waste are sparse. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that of the 275 million tonnes of industrial waste produced in the US each year, only 135,000 tonnes are exported. But the pressure to export is increasing. Greenpeace reports that 3.7 million tonnes of waste of all sorts were shipped from industrialised to dev-eloping countries be-tween 1986 and 1988. Various authorities turned down proposals during the same period to ship another 17.5 million tonnes. Companies planning to export hazard-ous waste from the US must notify the Environmental Protection Agency, which ensures that the prospective importer agrees to the shipment. In 1980, 12 companies notified the agency of export plans. Between January and July 1988, 522 companies did so. The biggest incentive to export waste is economic. As environmental regulations in rich countries become more demanding, the cost of burying hazardous waste in the US has risen from dollars 15 in 1980 to dollars 250 today. Incineration can cost dollars 1500 per tonne. Disposal costs in Europe have quadrupled in the past 10 years. Stricter rules call for expensive incineration, while incinerating capacity remains limited by public reluctance to permit new plants. Groups such as Greenpeace want an outright ban on exports of hazardous waste. They say this will force firms to develop sound ways of recycling waste, or of changing processes to prevent its pro-duction. Others say this is impractical. Facilities to dispose of waste are often highly specialised, requiring an international mar-ket in order to survive. Ninety per cent of the US’s exports of hazardous waste goes to three sites in Canada, the closest facilities licen-sed to handle it. Britain has Europe’s biggest industry for disposing of wastes. It makes little sense to ban trade if it is environmentally safer to send German waste to a better-equipped plant in Britain, for instance. With export bans impossible, UNEP’s treaty relies on notification. Companies wishing to export will be required to notify the importing country of plans to export any waste that either the exporting or im-porting country con-siders hazardous. The treaty does not say what is hazardous, but it lists more than 40 classes of material, from inorganic cyanides to ‘wastes from the production and use of photographic chemicals’, on a list of wastes to be controlled. Waste containing such materials is called hazardous if it also possesses characteristics such as ‘exotoxic’ or ‘carcinogenic’. Here the wrangling starts. Take a load of waste containing five parts per million of mercury. Some countries call that haz-ardous. Others do not. One idea was to include under the treaty any waste containing mercury. Then, after notification, individual countries could decide whether to treat it, for their own purposes, as hazardous. But when the OECD proposed this idea in 1987, the US and Japan opposed it. The OECD then suggested that all wastes classed as hazardous in the exporting country should be notified to the domestic authorities in that country, who would negotiate with the importing country and ensure that the shipment broke no rules in either place. This, says Harvey Yakowitz of the OECD secretariat, would reduce the chance of companies bribing or misleading officials in the importing country to accept unsuitable waste. The UNEP’s treaty weakens this idea. It insists only that the exporting company should negotiate with the importing government, which must provide its ‘prior informed consent’. Governments of exporting countries merely rubber stamp the deal once it is made. The treaty leaves other loopholes. One relates waste intended for recycling, which is not legally ‘hazardous’ in most countries. Such dispensations have often led to ‘sham recycling’. To avoid the expensive handling required for hazardous material, waste is exported ostensibly for re-use. It often ends up in facilities which cannot in practice recycle it. This happened last year to Philadelphia’s incinerator ash, which could not be turned into bricks, as promised, in Guinea. The US Environmental Protection Agency reports that the disposal ‘of worthless hazardous waste ..under the guise of recycling’ is growing. In 1981, an American, Clarence Nugent, was arrested in Mexico for exporting hazardous waste to a ‘mercury recovery plant’ in Zacatecas, where it was simply dumped and burned. There is little to stop an exporter labelling hazardous wastes as non-hazardous, and leaving it up to the importer to spot the difference once the shipment arrives. At best, an importer can insist that, as part of the contract, the exporter must pay for the services of an independent bonding company, to check that all is as promised on arrival. If it is not, however, the load is then likely to embark on a round-the-world search for a port that will accept it. Experts at the OECD say that it is best to ensure that all the permission to dispose of waste is guaranteed before it leaves home. Anything else could be dangerous. Three workers on the docks at Koko started vomiting blood as they loaded the waste for re-shipment to Italy. There were no protective masks available. The UNEP’s treaty requires exporters to ensure that disposal sites are ‘adequate’, but there is no mechanism to ensure that disposal sites meet any agreed standard. The fear is that, with such weak controls, many poor nations will feel under great pressure to earn foreign currency by allowing their territory to become the dumping ground for other nations’ rubbish. In a bizarre vision of the future, an American company, Admiralty Pacific, has made to the Marshall Islanders in the Pacific Ocean an offer they may not feel able to refuse. The Marshall Islands is one of several low-lying Pacific nations threatened with inundation by the seas as sea levels rise under the influence of the greenhouse effect. Admiralty Pacific would like to send to the islands 25 million tonnes of garbage over the next five years. It will, the company says,
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