What a waste

Published: Tuesday 15 November 1994

LAST week, Australians admitted to their interest in selling hazardous waste to India for recycling. It is telling that hazardous waste has been dumped in India before, often indiscriminately and irresponsibly. This lackadaisical attitude towards toxins was the reason for the signing of the Basel Treaty on the Transfer of Hazardous Wastes in March 1991.

Developing countries, particularly Africa, pushed the treaty after noticing the dangerous pattern of global waste generation. The North, the world's biggest waste factory, is running out of economic and environmentally safe alternatives, and is looking Southwards for solutions.

The point is that territory for landfills for hazardous waste is running out. Incineration, the second choice, is 3 to 7 times costlier; and with people protesting over the location of incinerators, it is no longer a feasible choice. Microbial conversion, similar to the biological treatment of oil spills, is a growth area but is still in its infancy.

The last alternative is recycling. Historically speaking, only the poor recycle: it is poverty that promotes recycling. It is axiomatic that the more there is to recycle, the less recycling is done. Government policy which influences recycling has definitely not promoted it in the North where, more than anything else, it relates to hazardous material.

Returnable glass bottles once dominated the American soft drinks market; by 1985, glass bottles dropped to 16 per cent, the rest replaced by aluminium cans and plastic bottles, which captured nearly 70 per cent of the market. That year, each American used no less than 275 beverage cans.

Realising that those in want waste the least, the North is busy trying to change the equation. As far as the North is concerned, time and labour ostensibly have less value in developing countries, and what could be better than to help them spend it.

Ideally, there should have been no problems with tackling hazardous waste -- except that it is lethal. The poor in the developing countries are least equipped -- in terms of information, technology and money -- to handle it without endangering themselves. And the unfortunate fact is that government regulations for such substances either do not exist or are ancient and rickety.

Most of the South's laws can deal only with benign biodegradable waste, which is what the developing countries tend to produce. It is only when incomes rise that the share of plastics and metals increase in the waste. According to a World Bank study, vegetable matter makes up 4/5th of total waste in Lucknow compared to only 1/5th in Brooklyn, New York.

Therefore, a major effort is required to first establish the required legislative and technological infrastructure to monitor and handle the growing volumes of domestic hazardous waste, before allowing the North to dump the stuff. Often very severe damage is done before adaptation becomes successful. In many cases, the damage can be reversed only at stupendous cost. In some others, it is irreversible for all time to come.

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