NOT ON Planet Earth!

 Marcelo Furtado and Kevin Stairs say that the Basel Convention is an essential tool for achieving clean production, environmental justice and sustainable development

Generating toxic products and hazardous wastes can soon be a thing of the past. We are now poised to achieve this historic shift to clean production, thanks to sound, recent international decisions.

The late 1980s and 1990s witnessed the adoption of the precautionary principle, based on preventing pollution. At the same time, two-thirds of the Earth’s surface – the oceans – were closed to waste management, through global bans on dumping industrial and radioactive waste in them, and on incineration at sea. And, in 1994, a measure adopted under the Basel Convention banned toxic waste exports from highly industrialized countries to less developed ones.

These decisions do more than just stop direct pollution. They are also a driving force, providing an incentive for industries to employ clean production methods and thus avoid generating toxic waste in the first place.

Thus, the Basel Convention can be one of the most important instruments in the transformation to a clean production-based economy – a prerequisite for sustainable development. It is not just about stopping pollution being transferred from richer to poorer. It goes beyond ‘Not in My Back Yard’ to ‘Not on Planet Earth’.

Some industries reacted to the stopping of ocean dumping, more stringent environmental protection regulations and higher disposal costs in the rich nations, by seeking an alternative solution to waste disposal – dumping on the poor. Arms and drug traffickers even started to seek out poor nations willing to exchange poison for cash.

The waste trade follows the path of least resistance. The poorer and less informed the community (or country), the more likely it is to become a target for the traders. So poorer communities have always ended up with a disproportionate share of toxic waste.

As the Basel Convention was coming into being, both developing countries and environmentalists alike wanted to end this destructive dynamic with a ban on the export of all hazardous waste from rich nations (who generate most of it) to the less industrialized ones. But, when the Convention was adopted in 1989, it fell far short of this. It originally merely set out to monitor the movement of waste, rather than to prevent it, and so was heavily criticized for legalizing what many considered a crime.

Africa takes the lead
Africa, the first target for hazardous waste dumping, reacted by being the first to establish a regional ban on waste imports – the Bamako Convention. Latin America followed with a number of national bans and a regional agreement between Central American governments. Then the Mediterranean and Pacific States established their own regional bans in the Barcelona Convention and the Waigani Treaty.

As a result Asia became the main target of the dumpers. In addition, waste dumping became disguised as ‘recycling’, with hazardous waste renamed as ‘products’ or ‘secondary raw material’. Even so-called legitimate hazardous waste recycling creates a circle of poison – generating, recycling and disposing of hazardous materials with pollution at each stage.

In all, it took almost a decade for the international community to accept the message from the developing world to the industrialized nations: ‘We Don’t Want Your Toxic Waste!’ The historical 1994 Basel Ban decision (incorporated as an amendment to the Convention in 1995) – prohibiting the wealthy, OECD countries from exporting hazardous waste for any reason, including recycling, to non-OECD states – set the record straight.

The process of change was by no means smooth. Many industries fought heated campaigns for free trade in hazardous wastes. Some used misinformation and economic terror tactics. A few OECD governments constantly used their political machines to try to undermine the Basel Ban by weakening its language, questioning its definitions and threatening to circumvent it.

There was a clear division. On one side was dirty industry – and some industrialized governments taking instructions from it. On the other were the majority of states and those industries willing to move towards cleaner alternatives. Thus a few countries, with the greatest capacity for dealing with the hazardous waste crisis, became the main obstacle to solving it. Fortunately, the will of the majority prevailed.

The battle is not yet over. The Basel Ban is a judicial and environmental victory; but it still requires a number of ratifications from states to enter into legal force. And, despite the ban, some industries and some governments will continue to seek loopholes in the Convention so as to go on exporting their hazardous wastes.

The aims of the Basel Convention, including the Basel Ban are to:

  • Minimize – and aim to eliminate – the generation of hazardous waste and its movement across boundaries.
  • Ban the transfer of pollution and implement pollution prevention. The richest nations generate most toxic waste and should be responsible for their own waste crisis. Unless the floodgates that allow toxic waste to flow from rich to poor communities are closed, there will be no incentive to prevent it being generated.
  • Take responsibility. All nations should handle their waste crisis in environmentally sound ways, placing the emphasis on avoiding generating hazardous waste.
  • Tackle the causes not the symptoms. A sustainable future can only be obtained by changing manufacturing processes. When polluting industries stop using hazardous materials, they stop producing toxic waste. That is clean production.

Clean production is not a futuristic concept, but a current reality. Cleaner alternatives are being introduced into the market. Toxic organic solvents used to de-grease metal surfaces and circuit boards, for example, have been replaced by citrus-based oils – or just soap and water.

The electronics industry fought, during the Basel Ban negotiations, to keep computer nickel-cadmium batteries out of the scope of the waste trade ban. After it lost, the same industry introduced over 10 alternative batteries – all free of such heavy metals. This is an example of the Basel Ban creating market opportunities for cleaner alternatives. As cheap and dirty escape routes are closed, polluting industries are forced to address and implement real, non-polluting solutions.

Clean goods, clean services
The Basel Convention is now 10 years old. Greenpeace’s birthday wish is that in the coming years the Parties to this Convention will succeed in using this international treaty as one of the main tools driving us into a toxic-free future. The few industrial countries which historically have been an obstacle to environmental solutions must stop protecting their polluting industries and become leaders on the path to sustainable development – an economic system based on the clean production of goods and services

Marcelo Furtado, based in Brazil, coordinates the Greenpeace International campaign against Toxic Trade. Kevin Stairs, based in Amsterdam, is the Greenpeace International policy advisor for Trade and Toxic issues.

PHOTOGRAPH: Peter Frischmuth/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Celebration and challenge | Informal diplomacy | Being in earnest | International Declaration on Cleaner Production | Clean = competitive | Not on Planet Earth! | The Basel Convention | At a glance | Competition | It’s a waste | Move these poisonous mountains | Broad, global and dynamic | A monumental challenge | UNEP Chemicals | Latin lessons | Sasakawa Environment Prize | Of potholes and ozone holes | Will we learn? <

Complementary articles in other issues:
Frank A. Campbell: Whispers and waste (Small Islands) 1999
Jacqueline Aloisi de Larderel: Making a difference (Small Islands) 1999
Geoffrey Lipman: Travelling hopefully (Tourism) 1999