International Trade in Toxic Waste

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International trade in toxic waste

Just as VCRs, cars, and laundry soap are traded across borders, so too is the waste that accompanies their production. In the United States alone, industrial production accounts for at least 500 million lb (230 million kg) of hazardous waste a year. The industries of other developed nations also produce waste. While some of it is disposed within national borders, a portion is sent to other countries where costs are cheaper and regulations less stringent than in the waste's country of origin.

Unlike consumer products, internationally traded hazardous waste has begun to meet local opposition. In some recent high-profile cases, barges filled with waste have traveled the world looking for final resting places. In at least one case, a ship may have dumped about ten tons of toxic municipal incinerator ash in the ocean after being turned away from dozens of ports. In recent years national and international bodies have begun to voice official opposition to this dangerous trade through bans and regulations.

The international trade in toxic wastes is, at bottom, waste disposal with a foreign-relations twist. Typically a manufacturing facility generates waste during the production process. The facility manager pays a waste-hauling firm to dispose of the waste. If the landfills in the country of origin cost too much, or if there are no landfills that will take the waste, the disposal firm will find a cheaper option, perhaps a landfill in another country. In the United States, the shipper must then notify the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which then notifies the State Department. After ascertaining that the destination country will indeed accept the waste, American regulators approve the sale.

Disposing of the waste overseas in a landfill is only the most obvious example of this international trade. Waste haulers also sell their cargo as raw materials for recycling . For example, used lead-acid batteries discarded by American consumers are sent to Brazil where factory workers extract and resmelt the lead . Though the lead-acid alone would classify as hazardous, whole batteries do not. Waste haulers can ship these batteries overseas without notification to Mexico, Japan, and Canada, among other countries. In other cases, waste haulers sell products, like DDT, that have been banned in one country to buyers in another country that has no ban. Whatever the strategy for disposal, waste haulers are most commonly small, independent operators who provide a service to waste producers in industrialized countries.

These haulers bring waste to other countries to take advantage of cheaper disposal options and less stringent regulatory climates. Some countries forbid the disposal of the certain kinds of waste. Countries without such prohibitions will import more waste. Cheap landfills depend on cheap labor and land. Countries with an abundance of both can become attractive destinations. Entrepreneurs or government officials in countries, like Haiti, or regions within countries, such as Wales, that lack a strong manufacturing base, view waste disposal as a viable, inexpensive business. Inhabitants may view it as the best way to make money and create jobs. Simply by storing hazardous waste, the country of Guinea-Bissau could have made $120 million, more money than its annual budget.

Though the less developed countries (LDC) predictably receive large amounts of toxic waste, the bulk of the international trade occurs between industrialized nations. Canada and the United Kingdom in particular import large volumes of toxic waste. Canada imports almost 85% of the waste sent abroad by American firms, approximately 150,000 lb (70,000 kg) per year. The bulk of the waste ends up at an incinerator in Ontario or a landfill in Quebec. Because Canada's disposal regulations are less strict than United States laws, the operators of the landfill and incinerator can charge lower fees than similar disposal sites in the United States.

A waste hauler's life becomes complicated when the receiving country's government or local activists discover that the waste may endanger health and the environment . Local regulators may step in and forbid the sale. This happened many times in the case of the Khian Sea, a ship that had contracted to dispose of Philadelphia's incinerator ash. The ship was turned away from Haiti, from Guinea-Bissau, from Panama, and from Sri Lanka. For two years, beginning in 1986, the ship carried the toxic ash from port to port looking for a home for its cargo before finally mysteriously losing the ash somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

This early resistance to toxic-waste dumping has since led to the negotiation of international treaties forbidding or regulating the trade in toxic waste. In 1989, the African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries (ACP) and the countries belonging to the European Economic Community (EEC) negotiated the Lome IV Convention, which bans shipments of nuclear and hazardous waste from the EEC to the ACP countries. ACP countries further agreed not to import such waste from non-EEC countries. Environmentalists have encouraged the EEC to broaden its commitment to limiting waste trade.

In the same year, under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal was negotiated. This requires shippers to obtain government permission from the destination country before sending waste to foreign landfills or incinerators. Critics contend that Basel merely formalizes the trade.

In 1991, the nations of the Organization of African Unity negotiated another treaty restricting the international waste trade. The Bamako Convention on the Ban of the Import into Africa and the Control of Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes within Africa criminalized the import of all hazardous waste. Bamako further forbade waste traders from importing to Africa materials that had been banned in one country to a country that has no such ban. Bamako also radically redefined the assessment of what constitutes a health hazard. Under the treaty, all chemicals are considered hazardous until proven otherwise.

These international strategies find their echoes in national law. Less developed countries have tended to follow the Lome and Bamako examples. At least eighty-three African, Latin-Caribbean, and Asian-Pacific countries have banned hazardous waste imports. And the United States, in a policy similar to the Basel Convention, requires hazardous waste shipments to be authorized by the importing country's government.

The efforts to restrict toxic waste trade reflect, in part, a desire to curb environmental inequity. When waste flows from a richer country to a poorer country or region, the inhabitants living near the incinerator, landfill, or recycling facility are exposed to the dangers of toxic compounds. For example, tests of workers in the Brazilian lead resmelting operation found blood-lead levels several times the United States standard. Lead was also found in the water supply of a nearby farm after five cows died. The loose regulations that keep prices low and attract waste haulers mean that there are fewer safeguards for local health and the environment. For example, leachate from unlined landfills can contaminate local groundwater . Jobs in the disposal industry tend to be lower paying than jobs in manufacturing. The inhabitants of the receiving country receive the wastes of industrialization without the benefits.

Stopping the waste trade is a way to force manufacturers to change production processes. As long as cheap disposal options exist, there is little incentive to change. A waste-trade ban makes hazardous waste expensive to discard, and will force business to search for ways to reduce this cost.

Companies that want to reduce their hazardous waste may opt for source reduction, which limits the hazardous components in the production process. This can both reduce production costs and increase output. A Monsanto facility in Ohio saved more than $3 million dollars a year while eliminating more than 17 million lb (8 million kg) of waste. According to officials at the plant, average yield increased by 8%. Measures forced by a lack of disposal options can therefore benefit the corporate bottom line, while reducing risks to health and the environment.

See also Environmental law; Environmental policy; Groundwater pollution; Hazardous waste siting; Incineration; Industrial waste treatment; Leaching; Ocean dumping; Radioactive waste; Radioactive waste management; Smelter; Solid waste; Solid waste incineration; Solid waste recycling and recovery; Solid waste volume reduction; Storage and transport of hazardous materials; Toxic substance; Waste management; Waste reduction

[Alair MacLean ]



Dorfman, M., W. Muir, and C. Miller. Environmental Dividends: Cutting More Chemical Waste. New York: INFORM, 1992.

Moyers, B. D. Global Dumping Ground: The International Traffic in Hazardous Waste. Cabin John, MD: Seven Locks Press, 1990.

Vallette, J., and H. Spalding. The International Trade in Wastes: A Greenpeace Inventory. Washington, DC: Greenpeace, 1990.


Chepesiuk, R. "From Ash to Cash: The International Trade in Toxic Waste." E Magazine 2 (July-August 1991): 3037.

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International Trade in Toxic Waste

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