Exporting and Importing Hazardous Wastes

Perhaps the most alarming part of the international trash trade is the growing practice of shipping hazardous wastes across national borders. In developed nations, these wastes are difficult and expensive to dispose of legally in a way that minimizes harm to the environment and to people. As a result, producers and recyclers are tempted to ship the waste to poor countries, where sometimes corrupt leaders offer much cheaper disposal fees. The problem, however, is that developing nations typically do not process the hazardous wastes properly, leading to a string of hazardous waste scandals in recent years.

In August 2006, for example, a Dutch tanker called the Probo Koala illegally dumped more than 500 tons (499 metric tons) of toxic sludge in the African nation of Côte d'Ivoire, sickening more

Waste is often shipped to poor countries because of lower disposal fees. However, developing nations often do not have the means to dispose of the waste properly. In 2006 the Probo Koala, a Dutch tanker, illegally dumped toxic sludge in the African nation of Côte d'Ivoire, sickening thousands of people.

Waste is often shipped to poor countries because of lower disposal fees. However, developing nations often do not have the means to dispose of the waste properly. In 2006 the Probo Koala, a Dutch tanker, illegally dumped toxic sludge in the African nation of Côte d'Ivoire, sickening thousands of people.

than 40,000 people and causing 17 deaths, some of them children. The sludge contained high concentrations of mercaptan, a substance found in some crude oils that is highly toxic; it was dumped at multiple locations essential to human health—near vegetable fields, fisheries, and water reservoirs.

The wastes were dumped by Trafigura, a Dutch oil trading company with annual sales of $28 billion, which reportedly rejected a bid of $250,000 for proper disposal in the Netherlands, choosing instead to ship its wastes to Côte d'Ivoire for a relatively small fee of $18,500. As journalists Sebastian Knauer, Thilo Thielke, and Gerald Traufetter explain, "The [Probo Koala] disaster is instructive: This is what happens when affluent western societies run out of places to dump their waste; when increasingly stringent environmental laws at home mean skyrocketing waste disposal costs; when criminal profiteers seek low-cost solutions."44

The Probo Koala incident and other hazardous waste disasters have occurred despite the international community's attempt to control the global hazardous waste trade. In 1989 the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal was adopted at a meeting convened by the United Nations Environment Programme. The treaty, signed by 170 nations, sought to reduce the international transportation of hazardous wastes. However, the treaty proved to be weak, and in 1994 a coalition of countries agreed to amend the treaty to ban all forms of hazardous waste exports from the twenty-nine wealthiest, most industrialized countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to all non-OECD countries. Yet the battle to enforce the Basel agreement continues to the present day, in the face of strong opposition from industrial lobby groups in the United States and other developed countries. The United States has signed but not ratified the Basel agreement, and the amended treaty so far has largely failed to stop a growing illegal global trade in hazardous wastes.

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