Recycling colonialism

Sunday 30 April 1995

MANY industrialized countries regard their developing counterparts as dumpyards - destined receivers of hazardous by products and waste generated by their hi-tech lifestyle and consumerism. This technically simple-minded and morally irresponsible point of view has led them to resist any attempt to strengthen the Basel Convention, which provides for a multilateral mechanism for curbing international traffic in hazardous and toxic substances. The "global workshop" on toxic waste exports, held in Senegal in mid-March '05, provided the latest stage for airing such callow obduracy.

This has been specially directed against an important decision, reached consensually last April by the 2nd Conference of Parties (cop), of the Basel Convention. The decision called for an immediate ban on exports the from Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to non-OECD countries, of any hazardous goods bound for final disposal. Likewise, trade in hazardous substances earmarked for recycling would be banned, beginning 1998. Sponsors and supporters of this decision are determined to use the 3rd cop, slated for this September, to push for the inclusion of these recommendations into the text of the Convention. At Dakar, prominent exporters of toxic substances, led by the us and backed by Australia and bulk of the European Union (EU) nations, re-proclaimed their hostility towards such legitimisation.

Exporters - who are now using Article I I of the Convention to wrench advantageous deals with individual recipient countries - fear that the inclusion of a comprehensive ban on toxic exports would prevent such mischievous manipulation.

Bullying being the last resort of the insecure, in the last week of January the EU threatened Denmark - the only European country supporting a ban - with legal sanctions if it persisted in its stand. EU officials acknowledge that the warning is intended to intimidate others, Sweden and Norway in particular, who have supported Denmark.

The us has mounted a more covert approach. Its officials have initiated negotiations with a number of developing countries, to agree upon the kind of wastes that they might be willing to accept. These negotiations are to be carried out over the next few months - on time for the 3rd cop. Commerce was undoubtedly the prime motivation behind these moves. Increased public awareness and campaigns on hazardous industrial waste has led to a vast body of laws in all the developed countries, which make the dumping and disposal of these substances a prohibitively expensive and painstaking process at home. The cost of landfilling I tonne of hazardous waste in the us has soared from us $15 in 1980 to us $350 in 1992. Experts in Germany say it is cheaper by us $2,500 to ship a tonne of waste to a developing country than to dispose it legally in Europe.

But trash means harL:ash. The overall exports of hazardous substances from OE6 countries was 78 million tonnes in 1990, valued at us $45 billion. Even more sombre are statistics which say that the rec@cling and disposal of this waste provided nearly 350,000 jobs @in the organised sector worldwide, with a turnover of nearly u@.$90 billion. The latter aspect influenced the exporting counthes to believe that they can indeed win over a kw collaborators from those who are presently the opponents.

Moral"re being propped to sanctify this moolah-hunt in this proselytisation. us lobbyists going around the various world capitals are arguing that categorical trade bans are undesirable from an environmental and trade stand- point, and a ban proposal must be lit by this wisdom.

The trouble is that toxic trade, if left to free markets, traverses the path of least resistance. The gradient of this journey is determined by many factors, including the level of environmental legislation and prescribed liabilities, disposal and labour costs and the recipient's debt to the sender. This trade in hazardous waste flows down to regions with the least political and economic clout to check it.

Exporting countries have used the appeal and the cover of 'recycling' - permissible till 1997 - to persist with this abysmal incline, and the traders and brokers have quickly reclassified their noxious wares. During 1980-88, only 36 per cent of all waste exports by the industrialised countries claimed any recycling or 'further use' at the destination. The figure climbed to 54 per cent by 1990, and 90 per cent by 1993.

The permissiveness of classification has been officially abetted by the OECD. They have reclassified hazardous sub- stances listed by the Basel Convention into 3 lists, denoted by red, amber, and green tags for trade purposes. As suggested by its connotation, the last is a free channel and has been made commodious to a variety of substances whose recycling is known to be toxic. This includes ferrous scrap as well as copper, nickel and aluminium waste.

A significant amount of the OECD-Country investments - both private and governmental - in the developing countries, aims to promote the reprocessing of these substances. Even the best environmental technologies developed in the OECD, hoping to hide piggy-back on hazardous exports, have yet to show success in mitigating the toxic by-products in the recycling and reprocessing operations. The problem becomes several times worse for the developing countries, whose industry is, at best, ambivalent towards such ancillary products.

Increased public awareness and disapprobation will ultimately bar the entry of hazardous substances in the developing countries but there is clearly scope for government action, collectivet and within their respective territories. They must strive for a foolproof and comprehensive listing of toxic substances, for use nationally and internationally. They must strengthen and duplicate regional-level initiatives to curb the transfer and passage of toxic trade - the Lome IV accord and the Bamako agreement come readily to mind.

Above all, they should keep the true reality that underlies the transfer of hazardous substances from the developed to the underdeveloped world. It is just another way by which the price of the former's progress is borne by the latter. The terms of trade in toxic and hazardous substances make it just another form of colonialism.

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