Close the Toxics Tap

INDUSTRIALIZED nations have moved closer to doing the right thing about their toxic waste, dealing with it at home rather than shipping it off to third-world countries.

Signers of the hazardous waste treaty, who were represented at the recent United Nations treaty review conference in Geneva, have agreed to an immediate ban on exporting toxic waste for disposal. They also agreed to an eventual ban on exporting waste for recycling. It would take effect Dec. 31, 1997.

Their action is encouraging as far as it goes. But there's a caveat. Although 64 of the signatories have ratified the treaty, the United States has not; it opposes a ban on export for recycling. It would prefer a partial ban that allowed such export when the receiving country officially agreed to it. However, nominally recyclable wastes account for some 90 percent of the toxic transfers. Recycling has become a euphemism for dumping toxic trash on cash-hungry third-world buyers whose governments look the other way.

The 24 industrialized nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes the US, generate 98 percent of the roughly 400 million tons of hazardous waste produced in the world each year, according to UN estimates. There is no question that those nations bear the prime responsibility for dealing with this toxic pollution.

Furthermore, those nations have accepted that responsibility in principle. That is why it was relatively easy for them to agree to immediately stop shipping out their toxic trash for disposal.

The rub has come with lead-acid batteries, waste containing mercury, and other trash sent to third-world agents for recycling. The US was not alone in wanting to keep that toxic export loophole open. Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, and Japan also found it convenient. But these others now agree to a total ban.

This leaves the US in an ambiguous position.

As a treaty signatory, it is morally obligated to comply with the Geneva agreements. But until the Senate ratifies the treaty, it will not be the law of the land. The Senate should swiftly ratify the pact, despite continued opposition to closing the recycling loophole.

Each signatory nation is responsible for policing its own treaty compliance, which includes curbing illegal waste shipments. Each formally exporting nation also has to meet the challenge of dealing with all of its toxic wastes at home. This will be expensive. It will take the force of law to spur the needed changes. Even Germany - the biggest hazardous waste exporter - now is ready to face up to that responsibility.

The US must do so too.

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