TCS Daily

Waste Not, Want Not

By Mark A. Montgomery - January 10, 2003 12:00 AM

Here's a question for you. Say that I have an obsolete, useless Commodore computer in my garage. You offer to take it apart, recycle the electrical parts, and sell the excess metal for scrap. I gladly give you the electronic albatross, but rather than neatly recycling it, you incompetently or irresponsibly disassemble and deposit the innards-some of which may be toxic-in your backyard. Who is responsible for the mess: you or me?

If you answered that I'm responsible, you're part of an unusual international consensus that was expanded and reinforced in Geneva recently. The Parties to the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and Their Disposal met in December to expand the treaty's 1994 ban on movements of waste from rich to poor countries.

The Basel treaty began with a simple idea: governments should inform one another if toxic trash moves from one country to another. If you don't want my Commodore computer, just say so, and the problem of disposal remains my own. But if you willingly accept my garbage, then the problem is yours. This system of prior informed consent works quite well worldwide.

The overwhelming majority of transboundary shipments of hazardous waste take place legally among industrialized countries with well-developed regulatory regimes that require environmentally sound management of waste. Data from the United Nations Environment Programme show that most waste trade (80%) is between European Union countries, for the purposes of recycling and recovery, not final disposal. Furthermore, little environmental damage has occurred as a direct result of transfrontier movements of hazardous waste, whether legal or illegal.

But what about poorer countries: are they dumping grounds for the rich? Based on an economic logic - but not on facts - that waste flows to places where disposal costs are low and environmental consciousness weak, Greenpeace and other organizations created the misperception that developing countries were victims of "environmental imperialism". The Basel ban amendment, passed in 1994 (but not yet ratified), was enacted to stop a non-existent trade.

Despite lax environmental regulations, and poor enforcement mechanisms, hardly a shred of physical evidence suggests that poor countries ever received more than a few illegal shipments of toxic waste. The Basel ban is more about politics than environmental protection. Governments of developing countries willingly signed on to the anti-waste trade crusade: even if poor countries weren't victims, it was great political hay for their governments to pretend they were. And screaming headlines of "toxic death" help to raise money for radical environmental groups.

Even before the Basel Ban took effect, Greenpeace's extensive investigations did not prove that poor countries were the unwitting recipients of the world's toxic trash. In fact, these governments successfully rejected nearly all unintended imports of hazardous waste. Given the choice, poor countries decline to become dust bins for the rich, and they manage this under a regime of prior informed consent.

Middle income countries, by contrast, have always taken the middle path. Some technological trash is a treasure trove, and countries like Taiwan, Brazil, and Poland, import it to feed their burgeoning industrial capacity. Electronic parts, plastics, old ships, and even my Commodore computer can be profitably recycled and reused. Trouble may arise, however, if these countries neglect to supervise how my computer is disassembled and recycled. It can be messy, and poorly regulated recycling industries can and do sully the local environment. But whose fault is it? In my eyes, if you botch the recycling of my Commodore, you're to blame.

The most compelling explanation for the non-existence of a waste trade "crisis" is that illegal waste trade is not nearly as profitable as legal waste trade. If economic logic drives the trade, then one would expect all parties involved to maximize their gains. Profits are highest when waste transfers are voluminous, repeated, and legal.

And what of the waste producing industries, especially those located in rich countries? Would they really want to encourage irresponsible trafficking in waste? Hardly. Spurred by the threat of fines, legal fees and cleanup costs, waste generators in industrialized countries have been increasingly vigilant about how waste is disposed. Industrial organizations have consistently supported the international regulations that allow governments to accept or reject certain classes of waste.

The international trade in hazardous waste is only a sidebar to a more threatening domestic environmental problem, with local rather than global effects. Instead of wasting time and money enforcing a ban on hazardous waste trade, we should encourage all governments, regardless of their level of economic development, to manage their waste (whether of foreign or domestic) in a way that protects human health and the environment.

Finally, outlawing more types of waste trade, whatever their undocumented size, merely broadens the possibility of illegal, uncontrollable waste transfers. Therefore the best policy for the international community might be to repeal the ban and legalize the trade from developed to developing countries. Make the trade transparent, controllable, and legal. But don't tell my neighbor he can't have my Commodore, if he wants it. He is sovereign, after all...and besides, it's taking up space in my garage.

Mark A. Montgomery, PhD, is Associate Dean at the University of Denver Graduate School of International Studies (Colorado, USA), and the author of several legal review articles on the subject of the hazardous waste trade.

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