The Multinational Monitor



Ending the Toxic Trade

In a landmark victory for the environment and people in the Third World, on March 25, 1994, more than 60 countries agreed to immediately ban all shipments of hazardous wastes from industrialized countries to the Third World and Eastern Europe not intended for recycling. The countries also agreed to phase out by 1998 all shipments of hazardous waste destined for recycling in the Third World and Eastern Europe.

The ban was adopted in Geneva at a meeting of the United Nations-sponsored Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes.

The new agreement will greatly reduce the booming international trade in hazardous waste. Since the 1989 signing of the Basel Convention, Greenpeace estimates that members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD - the world's 24 leading industrial Countries) have exported more than 2.6 million tons of hazardous waste to non-OECD Countries.

The agreement recognizes that many recycling schemes involving the shipment of wastes to the Third World countries are shams in which the waste is improperly treated, endangering the lives of workers, residents and the environment. The recycling proviso is critical; 86 percent of waste export schemes documented by Greenpeace involved some pretext of recycling (although monitoring is poor and this number probably represents only a tiny slice of the international trade in hazardous waste).

The underlying philosophy of the ban emphasizes that if a country produces waste (and according to the U.N. Environment Program, industrialized countries produce 98 percent of the 400 million tons of hazardous waste generated each year), it is unjust to expect another country to assume the risks of disposal.

The Success of the Geneva resolution was Largely due to the efforts of Denmark, which introduced the resolution, as well as China and the Group of '77 non-OECD Countries, led b`, Sri Lanka. Also noteworthy was the diligence of Greenpeace, which conducted exhaustive research on the global waste trade, maintained lobbying pressure on both OECD and Third World countries, and exposed countless waste dumping and bogus recycling schemes in the Third World.

Proponents of the ban had to maneuver around the opposition of a handful of industrialized countries, most notably Japan, Canada, Australia and the United States. At the end of the day, however, the United States stood alone, disgracefully defending the dirty and deadly trade in hazardous wastes.

Although New Zealand, one of the two OECD Countries not a member of the Basel Convention, eventually signed on to the ban, the other - the United States, which exports over 100,000 tons of hazardous waste per year and is the largest generator of hazardous waste in the world - did not agree to the prohibition, choosing instead to remain excluded from the global consensus.

Since the United States is not a Basel Convention signatory, its representatives attended only as observers. I Nonetheless, U.S. representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State Department actively worked to undermine the proposed ban, as they did under the Bush administration, even though the EPA , has admitted that there is sufficient capacity in the United States to deal with all of the waste produced within its own borders.

Despite its shameful role at the Geneva meeting, the Clinton administration has indicated that it would like to take a strong stance on hazardous waste. On March 1, 1994, EPA Administrator Carol Browner released a statement of principles that calls for a ban on hazardous waste exports, but grants an exemption for recycling schemes in Mexico and for both recycling and disposal exports to Canada. This exemption is significant, since, according to the EPA, 97.5 percent of U.S. hazardous waste exports go to these two countries. Thus, while the administration's proposal would technically meet the conditions of the Basel Convention (Mexico will soon be a member of the OECD), it affects a mere 2.5 percent of U.S. hazardous waste exports. Moreover, the proposal contains loopholes, such as an exemption for scrap metal, including hazardous Metals.

A more earnest effort is H.R. 3706, a bill introduced by Edolphus Towns, D-New York, which has garnered the support of 34 members of the House of Representatives. The bill would ban all hazardous waste exports, including those to Canada and Mexico. The Towns bill also lacks a clause that allows the president to authorize exemptions to the ban, unlike the administration's proposal which contains such a provision.

A total ban on waste exports Would end the hypocritical expectation that others should have to deal with the toxic legacies of U.S. industries. It would also set the stage for reducing the production of hazardous waste by bringing the responsibility for disposal of this waste closer to those who generate it.

The Geneva resolution was a long time in coming and will curtail many of the toxic effects of waste dumping in the Third World. The decision is a clear call to establish environmental security built on a foundation of global environmental justice. The time has now come for the United States to catch up with the rest of the world's standards and, in Browner's words, "tak[e] responsibility for our own waste" by banning the export of hazardous wastes.

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