A Dirty Dilemma: The Hazardous Waste Trade

By Lipman, Zada | Harvard International Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

A Dirty Dilemma: The Hazardous Waste Trade


Lipman, Zada, Harvard International Review


Since the 1980s, exporters of hazardous waste have targeted developing countries. Some of this waste is destined for dumping or disposal, while other waste is directed to resource recovery, recycling, or reuse. To protect developing countries from the dangers associated with hazardous waste, the international community adopted the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which first regulated and then banned the trade of hazardous waste. Although lauded as a landmark for global democracy and environmental justice, the ban has created a dilemma for developing countries with large recycling industries that rely on hazardous waste imports for their continued operation.

Environmental problems arising from the disposal of hazardous waste in developing countries did not gain international attention until the late 1980s, when several incidents of dumping were reported in African nations. One of the most serious cases occurred in 1987. Several thousand tons of highly toxic and radioactive waste, labeled "substances relating to the building trade," were exported from Italy to Koko, Nigeria, and stored in drums in a backyard. Many of these drums were damaged and leaking; workers packing the drums into containers for retransport to Italy suffered severe chemical burns and partial paralysis, and land within a 500meter radius of the dump site was declared unsafe. The Italian government eventually accepted the return of the waste, and the Nigerian government has since imposed the death penalty on the waste importers. In 1988, Guinea-Bissau was offered a US$600 million contract--four times its gross national product--to dispose of 15 million tons of toxic waste over five years. The con tract was never concluded because of public concern within Guinea-Bissau, but many similar arrangements were reported in the 1980s in countries such as Namibia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Haiti. In some cases, dumping took place with the consent of the government in question, while in other cases it was part of an illegal operation. Since then, numerous incidents of clumping in developing countries have been reported throughout the world.

Logic of the Market

Although precise estimates of the worldwide generation of hazardous waste are difficult to obtain, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated in 1992 that approximately 400 million metric tons of hazardous waste were generated annually, with 80 percent of this waste coming from countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This figure is likely to be significantly higher today.

The disposal of hazardous waste has become a major issue for countries that are large waste-generators. Before the dangers associated with disposal were understood, most of this waste was deposited in landfills, causing serious problems for surrounding areas. A well-documented example is the "Valley of the Drums" in Kentucky, a seven-acre site with 17,000 drums of hazardous waste that has contaminated nearby soil and water. As a result of incidents like this, most developed countries introduced stringent environmental and safety measures for the disposal of hazardous waste. This trend led to increasingly limited and costly disposal options in developed countries.

Developing countries became targets for waste generators--mostly developed countries--since they provided disposal options for a mere fraction of the equivalent cost in the state of origin. According to a study by Katharina Kummer in International Management of Hazardous Wastes, disposal costs for hazardous waste in developing countries in 1988 ranged from US$2.50 to US$50 per ton, compared with costs of US$100 to US$2,000 per ton in OECD countries. The cost of incineration was even higher, at US$10,000 for one ton of hazardous waste in the United Kingdom. The lower disposal costs in developing countries generally stem from low or nonexistent environmental standards, less stringent laws, and an absence of public opposition due to a lack of information concerning the dangers involved. …

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