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The Basel Convention and the Big Business of Hazardous Waste

CARTAGENA- Colombia- “Waste is big business,” spoke Cameroon’s delegate to the tenth meeting of the Basel Convention in Cartagena, Colombia. We were sitting at the breakfast table of a hotel, across from him sat the environmental secretary of Nepal, to his right was the delegate for Cambodia. These men were here with 115 other delegates [...]

CARTAGENA- Colombia- “Waste is big business,” spoke Cameroon’s delegate to the tenth meeting of the Basel Convention in Cartagena, Colombia. We were sitting at the breakfast table of a hotel, across from him sat the environmental secretary of Nepal, to his right was the delegate for Cambodia. These men were here with 115 other delegates and 600 other representatives from UN agencies, various governments, public interest groups, NGOs, as well as the private sector.

For one week at the end of October 2011, Cartagena was all talk of the global trade in hazardous waste.

“Africa is a big dumping ground for waste,” the big Cameroonian in a slick black business suit spoke as he bit into his arepa and appeared happily surprised that a piece of egg filled its insides. The Cambodian did not bother taking a risk with local food — he’d packed a stock pile of dehydrated noodles with him from home. The Nepali sat snug and smiled, ate everything on his plate, and had an overtly cheerful presence. But all three delegates nodded in agreement with the voice of Cameroon: the shipping of hazardous waste to less developed countries (LDCs) is a big business.

I asked the three men what the Basel convention was all about, and they explained that it was an international treaty to regulate and limit the transport of hazardous waste across international borders, with an emphasis on the transfer of such from rich and powerful countries to ones that are considered economically less developed.

Basel Convention members

“Does Cameroon accept hazardous waste from other countries?” I asked the man representing this country.

“No,” he replied proudly, “Cameroon does not take the waste.”

I asked this same question to the other two delegates, and they all responded the same. “Nepal is too far away to get waste,” replied the Nepali.

What is the Basel Convention

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal’ is the first global regulatory regime imposed upon the international trade, both legal and illegal, in hazardous solid and chemical wastes. The Convention concluded on March 22, 1989 at the end of a three-day United Nations Environment Programme (“UNEP”) conference attended by representatives of 116 states and observers from 34 non-governmental organizations.The Convention entered into force on May 5, 1992. –Basel Convention and the US and China

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was adopted in 1989 in response to concerns about toxic waste from industrialized countries being dumped in developing countries and countries with economies in transition.-Hazardous chemicals and waste convention

The Basel Convention . . . was created to address concerns over the management, disposal and transboundary movements of the estimated 400 million tons of hazardous wastes that are produced worldwide each year. The guiding principles of the Convention are that transboundary movements of hazardous wastes should: be reduced to a minimum; be managed in an environmentally sound manner; be treated and disposed of as close as possible to their source of generation; and be minimized at the source. There are currently 178 parties to the Convention. –Summary of the Basel convention

The Basel Convention entered into force in 1992, and ever since the international community stood at odds as to how to make it really work.

History of the Basel convention

What is the OECD?

Map of OECD countries

The OECD, or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, is an economic association formed in 1961 between 34 economic and politically powerful countries to stimulate economic progress and world trade.

The Basel convention is a reaction to the growing need for there to be international regulation for trade in hazardous waste which followed on the heels of two major environmental disasters:

1. The Khian Sea waste disposal incident. This incident occurred when a ship carrying hazardous waste departed from Philadelphia with the intent of  dumping it on a man made island in the Bahamas, but was denied permission subsequent to departure. For the next year and a half the ship tried to find a place to dispose of its cargo to no avail. Even return to Philadelphia was denied. Eventually, the crew disposed of half of their load — 4,000 tons — on a beach in Haiti disguised as “top-soil fertilizer.” Haiti eventually found out the true contents of the import and order it reloaded onto the ship and removed, but it was too late, the Khian Sea pull up anchor and slipped away.

The ship then went on a global odyssey to Senegal, Morocco, Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, and Singapore trying unsuccessfully to find a place to dispose of its remaining cargo. The waste eventually “disappeared,” but the ship’s captain admitted to dumping it in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

 2.  The Koko case. In this incident, 5 ships from Italy loaded with 8,000 barrels of hazardous waste dumped their cargo in Koko, Nigeria for $100 a month rent paid to a local farmer.

The term, “Toxic Colonialism” rose after these events and others like them, and the north to south import/ export of hazardous waste was beginning to look like a way for OECD and other economically developed countries to curb their waste problem and for LDCs to profit from it.

But I had to ask the question, how much hazardous waste is transported across borders? From my research, it appears as if only 4% of the hazardous waste emitting from OECD countries is shipped across international borders.

1994 Basel Ban on transport of hazardous waste overturned — I mean, amended — in Cartagena

On the influence of many countries and NGOs, at the second meeting of the Basel convention in 1994 it was decided that all transboundary movement of hazardous wastes intended for final disposal from OECD to non-OECD countries would be banned, and that the movement of hazardous waste intended for recycling between the same country groups would be phased out by 1997.

This was an amendment to the original Basel treaty which stated that countries could send and receive hazardous waste with “prior informed consent.” In 1994 this provision was overturned, and all hazardous waste shipping between mostly OECD and non-OECD countries would soon be prohibited. This amendment became known as the Basel Ban.

Needless to say, this ban was not received well well by many industrial organizations and well as some powerful nations — including Canada and Australia — and the amendment was subsequently blocked, leading to a gridlock at the Basel Convention which lasted for many years.

Until Cartagena.

To be clear, some non-OCED (i.e. developing, third world, southern) countries do not all necessarily want to ban the transport of hazardous waste into their countries. As the Cameroon delegate said, receiving this waste is big business. So the implementation of the Basel convention — or at least the amendment to ban all trans-boundary movement of waste between countries of different economic groupings — was very difficult to enforce. But the Cartagena meeting worked out a compromise:

The trans-boundary migration of hazardous waste between OCED and non-OCED countries will be allowed if the receiving country, 1) wants it, 2) can prove that they have either the disposal or recycling facilities to accept it in an environmentally and socially sound manner.

In point, the ground breaking decisions reached in Cartagena punched a huge hole through the Basel Ban, essentially making it a political moot point. The delegate from Cameroon criticized the decision by saying that some countries who want to trade in waste are not technologically prepared to receive it, but this new amendment does at least produce a set of international regulations which these countries are suppose to follow.

From the Basel Convention homepage:

The so-called CLI decision allows the Ban Amendment to come into force for those countries who wish to adhere to it, but also moves forward in establishing a regime for countries who wish to trade in waste to ensure the minimization of health and environmental impacts, ensuring adequate social and labour conditions and creating new economic opportunities.

In some ways, the Cartagena meeting knocked the Basel convention back to a crossroads that they made a wrong turn at nearly a decade ago.

External Resources

Background of the Basel Convention
Basel convention update
Another Basel convention update
Summary of the 10th meeting of the Basel Convention
Ban on hazardous waste shipments agreed
Basel Action Network
Basel Convention Wikipedia
Basel Convention and the USA and China

Filed under: Colombia, Environment, Politics

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3457 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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