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close this bookOutreach N° 94 - Waste - Part 4: What to do about Hazardous Waste (OUTREACH - UNEP - WWF, 34 p.)
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View the documentQuestions and answers: Hazardous waste
View the documentClass activity: Bike and bike products
View the documentNews brief: European waste wraps Pakistani sweets
View the documentNews brief: Indonesia's scavengers seek ban on waste imports
View the documentActivity: Hazardous waste on the Mexico-US border
View the documentArticle: Plastics: trashing the Third World
View the documentPuzzle: A junk trap!
View the documentArticle: Deadly litter chokes livestock
View the documentFiction: Adventures of Ranger Rick: Rick and the gang learn about a trashy problem
View the documentArticle and class/group activities: The Basel Convention
View the documentArticle: Keeping tabs on toxics
View the documentChart: Household products: potential hazards
View the documentActivities: What to do with hazardous waste
View the documentPuzzle: Odd one out
View the documentActivities: Use safer alternatives to house and garden ''toxics''
View the documentArticle: Mobilising against toxic waste
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View the documentClass/group activities: Cleaning up oil spills

Questions and answers: Hazardous waste


Jorge E. Hardoy and David Satterthwaite, Squatter Citizen: Life in the Urban Third World (1989) (Earthscan Publications Limited, 120 Pentonville Road, London N1 9JN, UK)

World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (1987) (Oxford University Press, Walton St. Oxford OX2 2DP, UK)

Greenpeace leaflet: International Waste Trade (Greenpeace, 11436 U Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009, USA)

Please acknowledge original sources.


Teachers, Community workers: To use to increase awareness of hazardous waste issues. The material may be used as background information for teachers/community workers, or as the basis for class/group discussions and activities.

Journalists, Radio broadcasters: As the basis of newspaper articles and radio scripts on hazardous waste to increase awareness on the subject.

Q. What is a hazardous waste?

A. A hazardous waste is a substance that is no longer useful but which has the potential to inflict damage on either human health or on the natural environment.

Q. Are there different kinds of hazardous wastes?

A. Yes. Some are highly inflammable, such as many solvents used in the chemical industry. Some are highly reactive, and can explode or generate toxic gases when coming into contact with water or some other chemical. Some wastes are corrosive, and others have disease-causing agents: for instance, sewage sludge or hospital wastes often contain bacteria, viruses and cysts from parasites. Some wastes are poisonous, such as cyanide, arsenic and many heavy-metal compounds, and many are carcinogenic (cancer-inducing), see box: Hazardous substance characteristics.


Source: California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Public Education Unit

Q. How much hazardous waste Is generated?

A. As definitions of hazardous waste vary, global estimates have a wide margin of error. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that worldwide, some 338 million tonnes of hazardous waste are produced every year - 275 million in North America and 25 million in Western Europe.

Q. Who generates hazardous waste?

A. Industrialised countries generate about 90 percent of the world's hazardous waste. Most toxic waste comes from chemical industries. However, significant quantities of hazardous wastes come from primary and fabricated metal and petroleum industries, pulp and paper industries, transport and electrical equipment industries and leather and tanning industries.

Q. How is hazardous waste disposed of?

A. Disposing of acids, pesticides, dioxins, toxic ash, radioactive waste, sewage sludge and other types of hazardous waste is the most dangerous waste problem. If such waste is buried, great care must be taken so that it does not contaminate underground water sources. If stored in drums, care must be taken that the drums do not corrode. Most toxic waste remains toxic so simply storing them does not solve the long-term problem.

Several disposal methods, each with varying degrees of safety and expense, have been developed by the industrialised countries. But for many hazardous waste, such as radioactive waste, there are no completely safe disposal methods.

Much hazardous waste has been dumped in landfills or stored in surface impoundments where leaks have contaminated groundwater and soil. In some cases, such as Love Canal in the United States, public health is threatened. Of the 32,000 potentially dangerous sites in the United States, 1,200 need immediate remedial action - clean-up costs are estimated at US$ 100 billion. Thousands of unsatisfactory sites have also been found in The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.

Q. Are there laws against hazardous waste dumping?

A. Yes, especially in industrialised countries. As these countries tightened their controls over the movement and disposal of hazardous wastes, illegal dumping and traffic has increased.

Q. Where are companies dumping their hazardous wastes?

A. Western companies, hampered by laws against toxic dumping in their own countries, have turned to the Third World and Eastern European countries to get rid of toxic and dangerous wastes. In Western Europe, disposing of hazardous waste can cost up to $500 per tonne: in Africa it can be as cheap as $3 per tonne.

Parts of the South Pacific and the Caribbean have long been dumping grounds for toxic wastes. When these sites began to fill up in the 1980's, Africa became the alternative dumping ground. What has complicated the problem is that a number of impoverished West African countries have been lured by the prospect of the payment of millions of dollars to agree to become the dumping ground for millions of tonnes of waste from the industrialised West.

Prior to 1989, the economic and political barriers between East and West created a de facto ban on waste trade between the regions. However, almost immediately following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there were reports of Western hazardous waste heading for Russia, Poland, Romania, Hungary and other Eastern states.

Q. What stand does the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme and other International bodies take as regards hazardous waste dumping?

A. The World Health Organization (WHO) has sharply criticised the practice of dumping hazardous wastes. Although the wastes are considered too dangerous to bury in the countries of origin, a very strange twist of logic makes the same waste not dangerous for the Third World and Eastern Europe.

In the late 1980's, the United Nations Environment Programme took action by drafting the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The aim of this Convention was to impose strict controls on the international movement of hazardous wastes and eventually reduce their production. (For more information, see The Basel Convention on page 14.) The Basel Convention came into force in May 1992, but there was a growing recognition that the treaty did little to halt toxic trade. In late 1992, the then UNEP Director, Mostafa Tolba, called for a complete ban on waste shipments to developing countries and Eastern Europe.

Many developing nations have long supported a complete ban on the export of hazardous wastes. Some have taken active steps to prevent the dumping - either legal or illegal - of hazardous wastes in their countries. For example, members of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) have set up a 'Dumpwatch' body for this specific purpose.

Today, several industrialised nations support a complete ban on toxic waste trade although seven heavily industrialised countries - Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the U.S.A. - oppose such a restriction. Not surprisingly, these countries are the source of the majority of the world's waste exports.

Q. What Is the best solution for dealing with hazardous waste?

A. There is no safe method yet invented for hazardous waste disposal. All waste disposal facilities release poison into our most precious resources: air, water and earth. No landfill or incinerator is completely safe - despite the industrialised world's reliance on these technologies. The long-term solutions lie in reducing the amount of waste generated, and transforming an increasing amount of hazardous waste into resources for use and reuse.

Class/Group Activities

1. Have students find words in the text above that mean:

(a) can easily catch fire;

(b) can explode;

(c) can eat away metal containers, skin and other materials;

(d) can harm or kill when eaten or absorbed by a living thing. (answers: inflammable, reactive, corrosive, poisonous)

2. Have a class discussion on the dumping of hazardous wastes in Third World countries. Start the discussion by asking, “Is it right to dump hazardous wastes in countries with less strict dumping laws? Whose responsibility is it to protect the people and environment in these countries?” Discuss with the students what action should be taken by the various parties involved, and have them write letters that set out their suggestions.

3. For older students: Have students form groups to investigate in-depth some of the controversies concerning toxic waste. Some examples are the presence of dioxin in paper products or the proposed methods of disposing of nuclear wastes. Have each group prepare a chart listing the pros and cons of each side, and gather newspaper clippings related to both sides of the issue.