Trading Waste

By Schultz, Mike | Harvard International Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Trading Waste


Schultz, Mike, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

The 4th Basel Convention, held in Kuching, Malaysia on February 1998, marked a significant effort against an environmental challenge to the international community: the trading of waste between developed and developing nations. While governments in developing countries have generally put up a strong front against industrial waste imports through their support of the Basel accords, companies within their borders are still tempted to import waste illegally. Until all countries have developed adequate waste treatment systems, trade in industrial waste will continue to endanger the lives of workers in the developing world.

Text:

Headnote:

Environmental Transfers Between Nations

The fourth Basel Convention, held in Kuching, Malaysia on February 1998, marked a significant effort against an environmental challenge to the international community: the trading of waste between developed and developing nations.

A central problem stems from the developing nations' financial incentives to purchase industrial waste at low cost and to recycle the materials. Developed nations also have a financial incentive to sell waste to developing nations, as they often lack the facilities to effectively rid themselves of hazardous byproducts. Unfortunately, many of the developing nations who engage with the developed nations in waste trade lack the resources to recycle imported waste safely. Workers in recycling plants are exposed to high levels of toxic waste. The past decade has witnessed a number of significant treaties, such as those brokered in Kuching, that have succeeded in limiting the opportunities for such trade. But despite these efforts, many developing nations still follow the financially expedient path that has led them to import waste and imperil lives.

India is a dramatic example. In recent years, India has accepted thousands of tons of spent lead batteries for recycling, although it lacks adequate precautionary mechanisms to extract the lead safely. In the plants, young workers, many of them children, must break open batteries with bare hands and put the lead on pans, where it is cooked until it is liquefied and can be extracted in pure form. The workers, lacking protective gear, inhale toxic fumes emitted during the process. India's other recycling methods, including melting waste and paying workers to remove pieces of iron slag from near-boiling liquid, are no less harmful.

The fourth Basel Convention arose as a result of the inability or unwillingness of countries to recycle industrial waste safely. In Kuching, more than 100 world leaders convened to work out the terms of an agreement that would demonstrate an international commitment prohibiting certain forms of waste recycling. The agreement was the latest in a series of treaties that have increasingly restricted waste trade. The first Basel accord, signed on March 22, 1989, banned the export of hazardous waste to countries lacking adequate facilities to treat waste materials before burying them. However, the treaty neither specified what materials would be considered hazardous, nor prevented export for recycling purposes. As a result, many signatory countries did not enforce its terms. In the five years following the first treaty, Greenpeace identified 693 proposals from developed countries to export their waste to developing nations. On March 24, 1994, the international sentiment against such practices led to stipulation on a future ban on hazardous exports for recycling, which became effective in January 1998. …

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