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Rubbish dump of the rich?

Exports of Toxic Waste to the Third World are Made Easier
by Loopholes in International Environmental Legislation

by Angela Girz*

The past few years have seen a major increase in export for toxic waste to Third World countries. The spectacular cases brought to light by international environmental protection organizations like Greenpeace are only the tip of the iceberg. International agreements signed in recent years do not go far enough.

In 1988, on the banks of the Niger in Mali, large piles of used batteries were found. They had been dumped there by a western firm. In the same year a refuse dealer put leaking drums containing over 2000 tons of toxic waste from Italy in a rented yard in Nigeria. A year later the owner of the yard died of cancer. This list of sensational - and shocking - exports of toxic waste to the Third World could be continued almost ad infinitum.

The prosperity of the industrialized countries leaves its marks almost everywhere. According to the UN special agency UNEP, the industrialized countries produce more than 95% of the world's hazardous waste. Increasingly, the very countries that have the strongest environmentalist movements are disposing of their "annoying waste" in a disgraceful manner by exporting it to poorer countries. To add result to injury, some toxic waste consignments are even declared as "humanitarian aid", like the recently exposed illegal export of 480 tonnes of highly toxic plant protection products to Albania from stocks of the former GDR.

Not in my backyard

The high level of environmental awareness in Germany has led to ever more waste substances being recognized as dangerous and ecologically harmful. As increasingly stringent regulations were introduced for treating and disposing of them, the cost of proper disposal rose dramatically. At the same time, the "not in my backyard" mentality of many civic action groups and environmentalist associations prevented the creation of landfill sites and the construction of incineration, processing and recycling plants.

Due to the high cost of disposal within the country, the growing mountains of refuse and the lack of space for landfill, a new type of lucrative colonialism - waste colonialism - has become widespread in Germany, as in other countries. As a result, industry can save the costs of waste disposal and waste traffickers can make millions. The dangerous "leftovers" of industrialized societies are quite simply removed from view. And so a situation of unparalleled cynicism arises, namely that Third World and eastern European countries have to pay - with severe stress on both their ecosystems and public health - for the environmental progress of the rich countries. Thus, the more economical solution of exporting waste to other countries hinders reorientation towards waste avoiding and environmentally compatible manufacturing methods in the industrialized countries.

Instruments of international law

Towards the end of the 1980s, more and more criminal waste exporting practices were brought to light. Consequently, in 1987, the UN special agency UNEP began formulating the Basic Convention on the control of international transport of hazardous waste and its disposal.

The Convention, which was accepted by 115 countries in March 1989 and came into force in May 1992, attempts to control the trade in toxic waste. Hazardous waste is defined in the annex to the Convention. The list of types of refuse to be inspected ranges from hospital and chemical waste to residues produced in the course of industrial waste disposal. The aim of the Convention, which was ratified by 21 countries when it came into effect, is to reduce international trade in hazardous waste to a minimum.

The USA, the European Community (with the exception of France) and Japan, i.e. the main producers of hazardous waste, did not ratify the Convention. African and many Latin American countries regard it as insufficient to put an end to the traffic in toxic waste, due to the many clauses which provide possible ways of avoiding the requirements. In their view the Convention regulates the trade but will not end it. For example, any waste may be exported if the competent authority of the country of destination has given "prior informed consent" and the transit countries have also given their approval.

A requirement to register with the Convention secretariat in Geneva and a re-import requirement for exports which are illegal or fail to reach a consignee were approved. However, the Africans' demands for a ban on exports from industrialized to Third World countries, and for a requirement that exported waste must be treated at the same technological level in the consignee as in the consignor country failed to win acceptance. It was merely agreed that disposal at the final destination must be environmentally compatible, though this was not defined in detail.

The international environmental protection organization Greenpeace criticizes that "the prior informed consent (PIC) requirement does not address the double standards' inherent in waste trade, i.e., allowing wastes to be exported to a place where the environmental and human health protection measures are lower than in the country of export. PIC cannot pretend to be a simple matter of informed choice when we live in a world of such disproportionate economic and political situations."

Moreover, claims Greenpeace, the main objective of the Convention, i.e. to reduce the generation of toxic waste to a minimum, is being undermined by legalized exports, because the OECD countries are still allowed to evade national environmental protection regulations and the high costs of disposal by exporting problem waste to non-OECD countries. There is thus no economic incentive to introduce waste-reducing manufacturing methods.

An important instrument for fighting the international trade in toxic waste is the Lomonvention, which tightens up certain requirements of the Basle Convention. In 1990, at the insistence of the ACP countries, the EC member countries for the first time approved a ban on export of hazardous and radioactive waste to 69 countries in A*ica, the Caribbean and the Pacific region, as part of the LomV Agreement. This is a finance and trade agreement between the European Community (EC) and the 69 ACP countries. In return, the ACP countries promise to prohibit "direct or indirect import of this waste from the Community or other countries into their territory .

Except for Nigeria, the Organization of African States (OAU) refused to sign the Basle Convention and worked out tougher regulations for the region to protect it against waste from the industrialized countries, following the sensational deliveries of toxic waste at the end of the 1980s. In February 1991, 51 African countries signed the Bamako Convention, which prohibits imports of any kind of waste into African countries.

Eastern Europe

Since the change of course in central and eastern European politics, ever more scandals about illegal exports of toxic waste to those countries have come to light in which waste traffickers use the trick of declaring the toxic waste as "merchandise" and thus evade statutory inspection by the authorities. On 20 October 1992, when ratification of the globally applicable Basle Convention was imminent, the environment ministers of the European Community agreed on a new EC regulation "to control and monitor the transport of waste from and into the Community".

The regulation is to come into force in mid-1994.

The EC regulation is intended to combat illegal movements of waste and eliminate the grey area between waste and merchandise. The regulation embodies the principle that the waste should be disposed of in the country of origin (autarchy principle). However, it permits exports of recyclable waste provided the government of the consignee country has confirmed that appropriate recycling plants exist there.

Export of waste to countries outside the 19 states which make up the EC and the EFTA free trade zone are only to be permitted if there is a bilateral agreement to that effect between the consignor and the consignee countries.

The recycling loophole, which allegedly permits free trade with reusable waste, is a target of particular criticism by Greenpeace, which claims that practically any kind of waste can be redeclared as recyclable or as a raw material for industrial processes. Resourceful waste traffickers can thus shift hazardous waste with impunity, declaring it as fertilizer, fuel, topping for roads, building materials etc. In this context Greenpeace points to a series of spectacular attempts to export toxic waste, allegedly for recycling, which put Germany at the centre of international scandals.


For Greenpeace, the only way to stop toxic waste continually being declared as "merchandise" and exports of hazardous waste for alleged "recycling purposes" is by a comprehensive EC export ban covering such cases. But Greenpeace also warns against the risk of a dual waste concept resulting from the EC regulation that makes a distinction between waste which is "recoverable" and that which is "to be disposed of". In its criticism of the regulation it points out that, "even in completely legitimate recovery projects,'recycling'plans are always concerned with the ultimate disposal of the waste, unless steps have been taken to ensure that it is returned to its country of origin. Nothing can be recycled 100 %. So the residues, which are usually the chief constituent of hazardous waste, are finally disposed of on the territory of the consignee country".

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that 250.000 tonnes of toxic waste are exported every year to the Third World alone. Despite advances in international environmental legislation there are still about 100 countries in the world which have no regulations to protect them against waste imports.

At the first conference following the Basle Convention, in Montevideo (Uruguay) at the end of 1992, the interests of the industrialized countries which depend on waste exports became clear. Countries which had signed the Convention but not yet ratified it were also allowed to attend as observers. Opening the conference, UNEP Director Tolby had suggested that all toxic waste exports from western industrialized countries to eastern European and Southern countries should be banned. But the proposal foundered due to the resistance of the USA, Japan and the EC countries. Their attitude was criticized accordingly by the developing countries.

The question is how long the western industrialized countries can afford to carry on abusing the developing countries and eastern Europe as dumping grounds and thus evade responsibility for the waste produced by their prosperous, highly developed economies.


The international conventions formulated in recent years are not stringent enough to regulate the export of toxic waste from industrialized to the developing countries. The former generate 95% of all the toxic waste in the world. As environmental movements repeatedly reveal, the urge to get rid of the irksome refuse is increasing. The author outlines the new international regulations for controlling toxic waste.


Les conventions internationales blies ces deris ann ne sont pas suffisantes pour rer les exportations de dets toxiques des pays industriels vers les pays en vole de dloppement. 95 % de l'ensemble des dets toxiques vent grdans les pays industriels. Le besoin de se drrasser de dets gnts en les exportant se fait pressant, comme le duvrent sans cesse les logistes. L'auteur que les nouvelles rementations internation ales pour le contrdes dets toxiques.


Los acuerdos internacionales elaborados en los os ano regular suficientemente la exportacie residuos tos de pas industrializados a pas en v de desarrollo. Un 95 por ciento los desechos peligrosos que se producen a nivel mundial provienen de los pas industrializados. Seg han comprobado una y otra vez las organizaciones ecologistas, crece cada vez mas el afde deshacerse de los molestos desechos a travde las mencionadas exportaciones. La autora resume los nuevos reglamentos internacionales pare controlar los residuos tos.