Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Toxic Waste Dumping in Africa: Globalization in the dock

It is hard defend "Globalisation" this time. Arguments about different attitudes to risk and comparative advantage do not seem to help here. Although corruption may play a part the question is who is paying the bribes and who is taking them?

The bottom line is that this dumping is a sort of pollution haven effect where high regulations (or costs of waste disposal) means that "postconsumer" goods have to be disposed of where the costs are lower.

The concept of "postconsumer" good dumping is quite a scary concept when you think of it. The Nigeria "500 crates" quote was a surprise.

Toxic Dumping in Africa Elicits Calls for Better Controls

Here are some choice quotes.
Recent illegal toxic waste dumping in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) has led to at least ten deaths and renewed calls from environmentalists for tighter controls over international waste shipments.

Tons of poisonous chemical sludge were dumped at various sites around the port city of Abidjan in August (Côte d'Ivoire map), leading to thousands of reports of people suffering from vomiting, diarrhea, and nosebleeds.

Meanwhile, the incident has many environmental groups decrying a lack of proper controls over the international waste recycling market.

As waste management has become globalized, countries with civilian unrest, no environmental law enforcement, or weak legislative frameworks have become prime targets for illegitimate hazardous-waste dealers, the groups contend.

"Unscrupulous dealers are also globalized," said Pierre Portas, deputy executive secretary of the Basel Convention Secretariat, the part of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that deals with waste management.

"Wastes always follow the path of least resistance," Portas said.

"What is happening in Côte d'Ivoire is a series of unfortunate events linked to greed. That toxic waste should have never reached Abidjan."

Rotten-Egg Smell

Details about why the waste was allowed to enter the West African country remain hazy. Numerous calls to the Embassy of the Ivory Coast in Washington, D.C., seeking comment went unanswered.

Instead of paying the $300,000 (U.S.) disposal fee in Europe, the crew continued on to Nigeria, the country where it intended on selling the gasoline shipment.

But for some reason, the dirty tanks were sent to Côte d'Ivoire, where a local disposal company reportedly agreed to empty them for $12,000 (U.S.).

And while the Côte d'Ivoire incident is bogged down in bureaucracy, it is still more straightforward than the issue of dumping postconsumer waste, such as used electronics, he says.

The high cost of postconsumer waste disposal in developed countries ensures that "it will go elsewhere," Puckett said.

But tracking postconsumer waste exports is difficult, because international tariff codes do not require transporters to distinguish between new and used electronic goods.

Often shippers claim to be donating electronics to developing countries but are never required to prove that the goods are still functional.

The loophole leaves an open door for unscrupulous dumping of junked electronics, Puckett says (related news: "Toxic 'E-Waste' Gets Cached in Poor Nations, Report Says" [November 8, 2005]).

Nigeria, for example, has received about 500 containers of electronic equipment within the last two years under the guise of donations.

At least 75 percent of the shipment was unusable and so was hauled to open fields and burned.

Lead used in circuit boards and monitors' glass tubes goes into the groundwater, and the burning plastics release deadly cancer-causing fumes.

"That is the constant assault that Africa is receiving," Puckett said. "It's happening on a daily basis."

Stemming the tide of such shipments must be done on the export side, especially given that developing countries often don't have an infrastructure to enforce proper waste management, Puckett adds.

"The U.S. is a glaring renegade country in this issue," with no controls in place over such exports, he said.

About 80 percent of the electronic material U.S. consumers take to recyclers is going almost immediately offshore to developing countries in Asia or Africa, he says.

"Every country," he said, "should take responsibility for their waste."

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