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close this bookOutreach No. 94 - Waste Part 4: What to do about Hazardous Waste (New York University - TVE - UNEP - WWF, 34 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentOUTREACH information packs
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentLocation map
View the documentHow to use OUTREACH packs
View the documentHow to use this OUTREACH pack
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
View the documentArticle: Oil spill!
View the documentClass/group activities: Cleaning up oil spills

Article and class/group activities: The Basel Convention


“Basel Convention Now In Force” in Greenpeace Toxic Trade Update No. 5.2 (second quarter, 1992); “Basel “Dumping” Convention Still Legalizes Toxic Terrorism” by Jim Vallette in Greenpeace Toxic Trade Update No. 6.1 (first quarter, 1993); “Basel - Another Dumping Convention?” a political analysis by Jim Puckett in Greenpeace Toxic Trade Update No. 6.4. If this article is reproduced, please credit original sources.

Greenpeace Toxic Trade Update is published quarterly (in English, French and Spanish) by the Greenpeace Toxic Trade Campaign. The Greenpeace Toxic Trade Campaign seeks an end to the international trade in toxic wastes, toxic products and toxic technologies. Each issue of Greenpeace Toxic Trade Update presents articles on international legislative developments relating to toxic trade, schemes and proposals to export toxics around the world, grassroots movements to prohibit toxic trade, and recent literature on the international trade in toxic wastes, products and technologies. For further information, contact Greenpeace Toxic Trade Campaign, 1436 U Street NW, Washington, DC 20009, USA.


Teachers: Use in class discussions/ activities on problem-solving environmental issues, and on hazardous waste issues

Community workers, NGOs: As background information for activists involved in local or national toxic waste dumping campaigns.

Journalists, radio broadcasters: As background 'awareness' material for articles/programmes concerned with local waste dumping issues.

In the late 1980's, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was drafted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The Convention entered into force on 5 May, 1992. Its target is to impose strict controls on the international movement of hazardous wastes and eventually to reduce their production. It regulates trade by a procedure called “Prior Informed Consent” (PIC). This requires exporters to notify the recipient nation of a shipment and to receive approval for it before proceeding. The exporter should also ensure that the importer has adequate technical capacities to dispose of waste without harming human health or the environment.

Fifty-five countries are contracting parties to the Basel Convention (February 1994). These countries are: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, France, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Seychelles, Slovakia, Slovenia, St. Lucia, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Syrian Arab Republic, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

The Convention disappointed many environmentalists and people from less industrialised countries who wanted the treaty to totally ban any movement of hazardous wastes, see box 1: Greenpeace denounces ban.

The first meeting of the Basel Convention was held in November 1992 in Uruguay, Dr. Mostafa Tolba, in one of his final acts as executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (he retired from UNEP at the end of 1992), stunned industrial delegates by proposing a complete ban on waste shipments to developing countries and Eastern Europe.

“The Basel treaty is not a panacea for this global problem that is sometimes described as 'toxic terrorism.' Hazardous wastes will always follow the path of lower costs and lower standards,” said Dr. Tolba. “The worrying aspect is the rising number of projects by the industrial world to construct waste-to-energy plants or what are described as 'non-hazardous' waste landfills or incineration facilities in developing countries.”

His initiative followed growing awareness that Basel's rules requiring prior notification of waste trade schemes have done little to halt the toxic trade.

At the Uruguay meeting, Dr. Tolba's proposal was supported by many developing countries, but industrialised nations, particularly major waste-exporting nations such as Germany, USA and the United Kingdom, forced a drastic weakening of the proposal The final resolution simply requested industrialised countries to stop disposing hazardous wastes in developing countries, but this “request” exempted exports for “recovery operations”. The Basel Convention's definition of “recovery operations” includes such easily abused methods as “use as a fuel,” “land treatment resulting in the benefit to agriculture improvement” and “reuses of previously used oil.” Over 90 percent of waste trade schemes targeting developing countries claim some sort of “recycling,” “reuse” or “humanitarian” benefit, see box 2: Dumping by any other name...

Box 1: Greenpeace denounces ban

Greenpeace has denounced the Basel Convention for the following reasons:

1. It is not a ban. There are no provisions to ban any kind of waste trade, except to Antarctica. “By providing a legal framework within which to trade waste, the Convention legitimises a practice which should be considered a criminal activity. The Basel Convention's will dangerously create an illusion that the international waste trade is now under control. (article 4)”

2. It will not prevent waste generation. When industrial interests can cheaply export their waste problems rather than take responsibility for them at home, there is little incentive for them to reduce the amount of waste produced or turn to the creation of non-polluting industries and environmental-benign products that do not create hazardous waste. (Article 6)

3. It does not address the “double standards” inherent in waste trade. This refers to the issue that although the waste is considered too dangerous to bury in the countries of origin, a very strange twist of logic makes the same waste not dangerous for developing countries or countries with less stringent environmental laws, and where environmental monitoring, enforcement, protective equipment, emergency response and health care are lacking.. (Article 6).

4. Radioactive waste can be interpreted to be excluded from the scope of the Convention. (Article 1)

5. Exports to non-parties are allowed. Agreements and treaties can be made with non-Parties to the Convention whereby waste can be traded so long as these agreements “are not less environmentally sound”. The problem is that this condition is somewhat subjective. (Article 11)

6. Liability provisions. As yet there are no liability provisions in the agreement. (Article 12)

7. It does not define waste management as including waste prevention measures. The Convention defines waste management in a limiting way, excluding all actions that would prevent the generation of wastes (Article 2)

Box 2: Dumping by any other name....

The latest trend in the waste trade industry is to disguise waste trade deals as recycling or reuse proposals. Waste traders tailor their schemes to the particular needs of the place where they would like to dump their wastes.

For example, several Caribbean countries suffer from acute shortages of electricity and roads. Consequently, a host of waste traders are trying to persuade them to build toxic waste incinerators which they claim would produce electricity (along with toxic air emissions and ash) or use the resulting incinerator ash (contaminated by heavy metals and dioxin) to build roads.

Even if recycling schemes involved some form of legitimate recycling, this type of trade represents a dangerous loophole through which huge volumes of poisons can be move across boundaries. Often, these recycling operations are marginal businesses which would not be allowed in the countries where the waste is produced. And often these “recyclers” leave vast amounts of toxic residues in the importing country.

Heavily industrialised countries ship millions of tonnes of waste to metal smelters in Asia and Latin America for “recycling”. The smelters heat the toxic wastes to extract selected metals from imported wastes - but the wastes commonly contain dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals and chlorinated chemicals which are either released into the air, or remain as incinerator residues which are dumped on land.

In Taiwan, for example, a company called Acme operated a lead smelter which, until 1990, burned used batteries from Japan and the United States. A local doctor discovered that, of the sixty-four workers at the plant, thirty-one had lead poisoning. Lead emissions were so prevalent that children attending school downwind of Acme had to wear cloth masks over their mouths.

The Thor Chemical mercury smelter in South Africa, which processes mercury wastes from Europe and North America, has discharged extraordinarily high levels of mercury contamination in a nearby stream.

Claiming a recycling pretext is an easy way to disguise economically motivated waste export. Recycling usually implies an environmentally sound activity, but where hazardous wastes are concerned, it is often a very deadly and dirty business.

Source: GREENPEACE: leaflet, 'International Waste Trade' (1991)

Faced with inaction and indifference from industrialised waste-exporting countries, developing nations have erected national and regional barriers to toxic waste traders. At least 103 countries have enacted total bans on the import of toxic wastes. African and Central American countries have signed regional accords banning all waste imports, and Latin America, the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and the Pacific regions are developing similar policies.

While the Basel Convention in its present form does little to stop either the generation of hazardous waste or its transboundary movement, there are signs of hope. There has been a major shift in policy of many rich, industrialised countries regarding waste exports. In the past, Basel Convention meetings have been drawn on lines between the North and South where a handful of industrialised nations have tried to forestall the efforts of developing countries to end waste trade. This polarization between rich and poor countries was finally broken by the Swiss delegation which said it could support a full ban on export of hazardous waste from industrialised OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries to non-OECD countries (which include developing countries and countries from Eastern Europe).

Other industrialised countries followed the Swiss lead. Today, 13 of the 24 OECD countries support a full ban.

At the end of 1993, seven heavily industrialised countries stand in isolated opposition to a complete ban on the export of hazardous wastes from OECD countries to non-OECD countries. Not surprisingly, these countries - Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States - are the source of the majority of the world's waste exports.

In March 1994, the second full meeting of the Basel Convention will be held in Geneva, Switzerland. This meeting is likely to be a pivotal one. As Greenpeace Toxic Trade Coordinator, Jim Puckett, puts it:

“The question is whether these countries [Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S.A.] will finally yield to overwhelming international opinion in favour of protecting their neighbours in developing and Eastern European countries from toxic waste traffic and dumping? Will they seek to become self-sufficient in waste management through the adoption of clean production methods of manufacture [non-polluting industries making environmentally-benign products that do not create waste], or will they remain lodged in outmoded, consumptive, waste-intensive, and “dump-and-run” policies?”

Basel Convention Class/Group Activities

1. Have the students select one of the following to complete:

“If I were in charge of a chemical factory that produces toxic wastes, I would.....”

“If I were the president/prime minister of a country that exports hazardous wastes, I would....”

“If I were the president/prime minister of a country that imports hazardous wastes, I would...”

2. Debate the Basel Convention in class. Make sure divergent viewpoints are considered (e.g. people who create waste, environmentalists, waste exporters, people in whose community waste is being dumped etc.)

3. Have the students find out if toxic wastes have been/are being dumped in your region. What type of wastes are they? Where did the wastes come from? What risks do these wastes present to your community? Brainstorm in class about what the students as private citizens can - and should - do about the dumping of hazardous waste in your community. Have them act upon the suggestions.

4. Older students can research other international treaties concerned with the dumping of waste, (e.g. The Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (London Dumping Convention), Lomé IV Convention, the Bamako Convention). Find out which nations were party to these treaties, the aims of the treaties, when the treaties were put into force, and how effective the treaties are.

5. Divide the class into small groups, and have each group draw up their own hazardous waste treaty. They must decide their overall goals, and work out how different parties can be encouraged to meet these goals. Have each group present their ‘treaty' to the rest of the class, and either have a vote on which 'treaty' the students think is best, or combine the best from the 'treaties' to make a class 'treaty'. Send your 'treaty' to your government and/or the United Nations Environment Programme (via OUTREACH Coordinator, IPA, UNEP, P.O. Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya).