OECD toxic waste exports banned under new agreement

By Chakravarthi Raghavan

The agreement by more than a hundred signatories to the Basel Convention on a total ban on the export of all hazardous wastes from OECD countries is clearly a major step forward in the fight against this form of toxic colonialism. However, it remains to be seen whether this will create a momentum in the North for the development of non-toxic technological processes.

ON 21 September, over 100 countries at the meeting of the Conference of Parties (COPs) of the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes agreed by consensus to amend the Convention to ban as of 31 December 1997 all transboundary movements from the OECD to non-OECD countries of hazardous wastes destined for final disposal or for recycling or recovery operations.

The decision was adopted by consensus at the final plenary of the Third Session of the COPs of the Basel Convention, and was cheered by the environmental NGOs present, while the recycling industry and business groups, including the International Chamber of Commerce, regretted it.

Currently, under a decision adopted at the last COPs meeting in Geneva in 1994, there is a ban (not under the Convention, but as a political decision of the COPs) on exports of hazardous wastes from OECD to non-OECD countries for final disposal, and agreement to develop a complete ban including for recycling purposes.

According to UNEP of the 400 million tonnes of waste produced each year, some 98% comes from the OECD countries. Due to the high costs of disposing of this waste, a new global industry and trade has sprung up - for collecting and exporting such wastes to developing countries and the former communist countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But the effectiveness of the ban would depend on developing an agreed definition, and its approval by the COPs, of 'hazardous' characteristics of 'wastes' - an admittedly difficult technical problem, even for those promoting the objectives of the Convention.

A technical working group is now studying the issue and has been asked to complete its work on hazard characterisation and development of lists and technical guidelines and submit them for approval to the fourth meeting of the COPs.

Not binding on US

To become effective, the Amendment to the Convention has to be approved by ratification and other equivalent national processes by three-fourths of the COPs, and even then would be binding only on those accepting it.

The United States, which has been lobbying OECD and non-OECD governments against the ban,on the ground that by banning only OECD exports to non-OECD countries and not deal with mutual trade among non-OECD countries it may be against the WTO has yet to ratify the Basel Convention. But Australia and others are Parties to the Convention.

Thus while the US may be free to export, the Convention prohibits the Parties to the Convention from exporting to or importing from a non-Party hazardous or other wastes.

With or without the new amendment, any Basel Convention member could ban any imports of wastes, which a country considers to be 'hazardous', and it could probably survive any challenge in the World Trade Organisation, even if the country disposes of its own 'hazardous wastes' or recovers material from such wastes for its own use.

Over 100 countries have now imposed bans on imports of all hazardous wastes, including those for recycling and recovery, and many of them support the ban on such waste exports from the OECD to non-OECD countries.

But the problem facing such an import ban is the ingenuity of the traders (importers and exporters) who very cleverly package and designate the imports as something else and dump them - and by the time the country catches up, the importing enterprise and the exporting enterprise abroad may have 'disappeared'. Hence the need for legally binding, and enforceable, obligation on the country from where the exports originate - including a rigourous policing of their exports.

The decision to amend the Basel Convention, thus making legal an existing ban/guideline that was adopted last year at the second meeting of the COPs, came in the very last hour of the final plenary of the Third Session at the end of a week of intense negotiations and lobbying.

Within minutes of the end of the session, Greenpeace, the international environment NGO that has been running a major lobbying effort among delegations and an intense press and public campaign before and during the meeting, issued a press release that the 'floodgates of toxic waste exports to developing countries' had been closed by the decision.

Greenpeace Policy Advisor and representative at the COPs, Dr Kevin Stairs, said that despite 'an onslaught of tricks and bad faith negotiations by a handful of countries, the global community has refused to accept a future for toxic colonialism and has agreed on a real ban... At last the loophole of being able to export hazardous waste under the guise of recycling will be eliminated, thus beginning a new era to promote waste prevention and clear production.. This will finally force the rich countries to take full responsibility for their hazardous waste production problems instead of dumping it on their neighbours. This was the original intent of this convention, and now it is fully a part of it.'

A subterfuge

Only time would show whether the Basel Convention amendment decision would create a momentum in the North for introducing technological processes without toxic or other wastes, as claimed by Greenpeace, or lead to other complications for the South - including a toxic colonialism being replaced by something else.

The United States has not yet ratified the Basel Convention and has been at the forefront of moves to enable 'export for recycling' - a subterfuge to export wastes, including household and municipal wastes and garbage, whose final disposal in landfills inside the country is opposed by local communities.

Australia too has been lobbying for several months now various countries against the ban including on the ground of its likely violation of the trading rules of the WTO.

Besides the amendments to the Convention, the COPs by the consensus decision:

* instructed the technical working group of the COPs to continue its work on hazard characterisation of wastes subject to the Basel Convention,

* noted that this technical group has already commenced work on the development of lists of wastes which are hazardous and wastes not subject to the Convention, and that those lists already offer useful guidelines but are not yet complete or fully accepted, and that

* the technical work group will prepare technical guidelines to assist any Party or State which has the sovereign right to conclude agreements or arrangements including those under Article 11 (which enables bilateral, multilateral or regional agreements or arrangements, that do not derogate from environmentally sound management of hazardous and other wastes) concerning transboundary movement of hazardous wastes.

The technical working group was instructed to give full priority to completing the work on hazard characterisation and the development of lists and technical guidelines in order to submit them for approval to the fourth meeting of the COPs.

The above article was first published in the SUNS of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.