Waste, International Trade in

During the past three decades, one of the most persistent international environmental issues has been the toxic waste trade between industrialized countries and less developed nations. From 1968 to 1988 alone, more than 3.6 million tons of toxic waste—solvents, acetone, cobalt, cadmium, chemical and pharmaceutical waste, and perhaps some low-level radioactive waste—were shipped to less developed nations. The saga of the freighter Khian Sea is a graphic example of this trade. In 1988 the ship departed from Philadelphia loaded with toxic incinerator ash. Four thousand tons of the waste, which contained dioxin and furans, two of the most toxic chemicals known to humans, were dumped on a beach in Haiti. No effort has ever been made to clean it up. Another ten thousand tons were later dumped illegally at sea.

That same year, another international toxic waste shipment led to a major diplomatic row in New Guinea. The government there jailed a Norwegian consul and fined him $600 after a Norwegian ship transported fifteen thousand tons of incinerator ash from the United States and dumped it in New Guinea.

Ironically, the growing clout of environmentalists in the United States has driven much of this trade. Strict U.S. laws now regulating toxic waste disposal have considerably increased the cost of disposing of toxic waste. In 2001 one U.S. official estimated that it cost from $250 to $300 a ton to dispose of toxic wastes in the United States, whereas some developing countries have accepted the same wastes for as little as $40 per ton.

Officials of some developing nations have called the trade "toxic terrorism" and "garbage imperialism," and others worry that the developing world will change from "the industrialized world's backyard to its outhouse," as an African official said. Many developing countries have had little appreciation of both the short- and long-term health and environmental risks of toxic waste and the dangers it can create.

Those developing countries willing to accept shipments of toxic waste are usually enticed by the prospect of millions of dollars that can be made for their struggling economies. In one deal, for example, the local government of Oro, New Guinea, negotiated a deal with Global Telesis Corporation, a firm from California, to build in that province a $38 million detoxification plant, which would process six million metric tons of toxic waste a month from the West Coast. The deal fell through under pressure by the national government and because of concerns that Global Telesis would not be able to raise the necessary funding.

Since the 1980s, when the issue of international trade in toxic waste first came to widespread attention, there has been a global movement to ban it. In March 1989, 105 countries met under the auspices of United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Basel, Switzerland, and passed the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. When the convention went into effect in 1992, eighty-eight countries signed it. In 1995 parties to the 1989 Basel Convention agreed to make legally binding a voluntary export ban that was agreed to in 1994. Surprisingly, the United States, one of the original proponents of the Basel Convention, has not thus far ratified the agreement. Supporters of stronger international toxic trade laws insist that, for the Basel Convention to have full force, the United States, as the world's leading producer of toxic waste, must be convinced to sign it.


French, Hilary. (2001). "Can Globalization Support the Export of Hazard." In USA Today (Magazine), May 2001, p. 20ff.

"Ratifying Global Toxic Treaties: The United States must Provide Leadership." (2002) In SAIS Review, Winter-Spring, 2002, p. 109ff.

Internet Resource

Lewis, Deana L., and Chepesiuk, Ron. "The International Trade in Toxic Waste; A Select Bibliography." Available from http://egj.lib.uidaho.edu/egj02/lewis01.htm .

Ron Chepesiuk

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