WHEN companies in industrial countries send their toxic waste to disposal sites in third-world nations, it's called ``garbage imperialism.'' Developing nations are justifiably angered at the prospect of becoming the globe's collective refuse pit. But negotiators in Geneva working on a UN convention covering the waste trade should avoid an outright ban on international shipments of toxic waste. An approach that allows for tightly controlled exceptions to a ban may prove more prudent.
By one estimate, in the last two years Western industrial nations have shipped more than 3.5 million metric tons of toxic waste to the third world and Eastern Europe.
It's not hard to grasp why: Treatment and disposal costs in many industrial countries can hit $1,250 a ton. In Africa, where debt-ridden countries have tended to be short on expertise and on regulations governing toxic wastes, such materials can be dumped for as little a $3 a ton.
Dumping deals have been made on the sly; others have involved toxic materials that entered a country labeled as non-toxic. Many developing nations are already beset by a daunting list of environmental problems stalling economic and social progress. Adding toxic wastes to the list doesn't help.
A flat ban on international shipments is attractive. It is simple, and supporters hope it will force industrial countries to reduce or recycle toxic waste where it is generated. Such efforts would reduce the waste stream, but would not eliminate it. This leaves unanswered the question of what to do with waste once a country's ``in house'' storage is exhausted. And it blocks countries that are capable of safely storing or recycling another's hazardous waste from doing so.
A more flexible approach might be an international ban on shipments unless the governments of the exporting and importing countries agree to the exchange. The importing country would certify that its disposal sites meet the standards of the exporting country; every shipment would require the prior and informed consent of the receiving country.