Break the Toxic Waste Habit

Industrial nations should ban hazardous waste exports to third world countries

LAST year the United States sent Bangladesh a surprise gift. It came neatly packaged in bags labeled as "fertilizer," but farmers discovered too late that the bags actually contained more than 3,000 tons of hazardous waste shipped by a South Carolina company. All of the waste, containing lead and cadmium dust, was distributed, and a third of it was spread on Bangladeshi fields before the scandal was exposed.

The Bangladesh government's report studying the effects of the toxic fertilizer is being closely guarded and has not yet been released. Reportedly, it calls the impact of the toxic waste "drastic" and recommends that the fields and nearby fisheries be taken out of production for at least five years.

In July, after months of pressure from environmentalists, the financier of the scheme, the Asian Development Bank, sent a team of epidemiologists and toxicologists to investigate. It also tentatively agreed to fund the return to the US of the toxic waste that is still warehoused. No date has been set for the return of the waste because the US government has not yet agreed to accept it. Late last year the company that generated the waste, Gaston Copper, pleaded guilty to violating US-waste export reportin g procedures and accepted a $1 million fine.

Sixty-five nations that are parties to the London Convention have agreed to end the dumping of poisons into the Earth's oceans. Similarly, the Basel Convention, signed by 52 nations in 1989, is aimed at minimizing and/or eliminating the generation and trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste. It was formed to address the growing problem of dumping toxic wastes in the developing world.

In 1986 only three developing nations prohibited the import of hazardous waste; in 1993 that number has grown to 95, largely due to environmental and human health concerns. Two regions of the world - Africa and Central America - have adopted regional accords that ban all hazardous waste imports.

Needless to say, the nations most responsible for hazardous waste exports find the call to end dumping in developing countries a threat to their plans to continue exporting wastes.

The US, Germany, Britain, and Canada - all of whom agreed to stop dumping hazardous waste in the world's oceans - are unwilling to prohibit the export of hazardous wastes to developing countries. They are intent on keeping their "options open," even though the majority of the world agrees that the trade in hazardous wastes must stop.

The 24 most industrialized countries collectively produce 98 percent of all hazardous wastes, about 300 million to 400 million tons of waste each year, including plastics, dioxins, heavy metals, and pesticides. The US and Germany are the world's largest producers and exporters, respectively, of hazardous wastes.

In the last two years alone, Germany has been caught dumping toxic wastes and obsolete pesticides in Romania, Estonia, Albania, Namibia, Egypt, Turkey, France, Indonesia, and Ukraine.

Each time the toxic shipment was cloaked under the guise of "recycling," "further use" or even "humanitarian aid." In more than one case, Germany was forced to take back the poisons following public exposure and a diplomatic scandal.

In the US, less than 1 percent of all hazardous waste produced is exported, but the number of export applications has doubled in recent years. US companies have been caught exporting toxic wastes masked as "road construction material," "waste to energy" projects, or even, as mentioned above, as "fertilizer."

ON average, Greenpeace discovers almost one new toxic waste export scheme weekly, and this figure probably represents only the tip of the iceberg.

Earlier this year, three US tire shredding companies negotiated a plan to ship 25 tons of used tires to Honduras, where they would be burned as "fuel" in a cement kiln, releasing dangerous levels of dioxins, furans, heavy metals, and other toxic poisons.

But Honduras and five other Central American nations had banned the import of toxic wastes in December 1992. When notified of the impending shipment, Honduran President Rafael Leonardo Callejas warned that his government would stop it from entering Honduras. The mound of tires still sits on the Houston Port docks.

We are all familiar with US neighborhood collection programs for recyclables. In the last few years, the US has exported thousands of tons of plastic waste from these programs to Indonesia.

In November 1992 Indonesia banned the import of plastic waste, in part due to the discovery that up to 40 percent of this plastic waste was being land-filled, not recycled.

Some US companies disregard Indonesia's law and continue to export plastics to that country.

Right now, over 200 containers of imported plastic waste have been abandoned at the port of Jakarta. The Indonesian public is demanding that the wastes be returned to the US, but no American law requires that, and there are no funds for the return shipment.

Hazardous wastes are exported for economic reasons, never for environmental ones. They pose a continuous risk to health and the environment, regardless of whether they are to be dumped, "reused," "recycled," or "recovered."

In 1992 Greenpeace found that nearly 90 percent of all hazardous waste export schemes suddenly adopted these labels. The terms apply mostly to metal and plastic wastes, but whatever the substance, "recycling," "reuse," and "recovery" of potentially hazardous wastes always produces persistent human and environmental pollutants that must be disposed of somewhere - usually in the less industrialized importing nation.

The Clinton administration is reviewing its hazardous waste export policy. It would behoove the president to use this opportunity join those nations that have agreed to ban all hazardous waste exports to other countries.

Until this happens, the US is essentially powerless to stop situations like those described here.

Vice President Al Gore Jr. supported banning exports of all hazardous wastes to developing countries in 1992. He should be heard on this issue now.

A 1986 study by the US Office of Technology Assessment calculated that the US could reduce its production of hazardous waste by 50 percent over the next five years; instead US hazardous waste production is increasing by 5 percent a year.

Pollution prevention and clean production must be the wave of the future if the industrialized world is to ever deal with its mounting waste problem.

It is scandalous that the US continues to protect its "right" to dump on its neighbors and aids what the United Nations Environment Program has called "a growing army of immoral, unscrupulous waste brokers benefiting from a global commerce in poison."

Exporting hazardous waste to the developing world has been called the 1990s version of "toxic colonialism."

Isn't it time for the world's richest countries to face responsibility for this environmental problem and ban hazardous waste exports to the developing world?

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