It’s a WASTE

 Alex Kirby outlines the problem of disposing of hazardous wastes and talks to experts about a solution

The trouble with the throw-away society is that there is no such place as ‘away’. What we think we have thrown away is liable to come back to haunt us.

For a long time we managed to believe that what was out of sight was not going to be a danger, at least to us. Traditionally both hazardous and other waste has been put into holes in the ground. This was cheap and simple, and no-one could see the poisons leaching out of the waste and into the groundwater, organic waste generating explosive concentrations of methane gas, or the gas seeping out to contribute to global warming.

Nearly two-thirds of 100 countries canvassed in an international survey at the beginning of the 1990s said that at least some of their hazardous industrial waste was put in uncontrolled dumps. Both developed and developing countries are littered with such contaminated sites.

Regulations have been tightened, particularly in developed countries, and sites have greatly improved. But there is a limited number of such suitable landfills – and no shortage of governments with a reputation for overregulation, but underenforcement. Since 1976, OECD countries have formally listed landfill as the least preferred way of dealing with wastes after dumping at sea. Yet about three-quarters of Europe’s hazardous and municipal wastes are still disposed of in this way.

If you cannot put the waste in a hole, you can burn it, and the OECD waste hierarchy does marginally prefer such incineration. But this, again, demands proper management and enforcement to make sure that the risks, which can be considerable, are kept as low as possible. Poorly run or outdated incinerators emit dioxins, furans and other highly toxic pollutants.

Modern, well-regulated incinerators have dramatically reduced such pollution. But it is becoming increasingly hard to find places to put them because people do not want them in their neighbourhoods. Rod Aspinwall, Deputy Chairman of the United Kingdom’s Enviros consultancy, says ‘incineration is now facing much the same difficulties as landfill did’.
Drastically reducing waste makes good economic and environmental sense

One way of sweeping hazardous waste out of sight has been to export it to countries willing to accept it. The snag here is that, naturally, the waste tends to go to countries where the cost of disposal is cheap, and these are often those where standards are low: some are very unlikely to be able to afford to manage and treat it adequately.

Waste imports to Britain soared from 5,000 to 183,000 tonnes (an estimated 80,000 tonnes of it hazardous) between 1983 and 1987 as regulations grew more stringent in North America and Continental Europe. In 1988 more than 1 million tonnes of hazardous waste were exported from Western Europe to the then East Germany. And the European Environment Agency reports that some 120,000 tonnes of hazardous wastes have been legally shipped to developing countries each year, a trade dwarfed by large, if unquantified, illegal exports.

A toxic legacy
Developing countries also have to cope with a toxic legacy from the past. The Philippines has to deal with a heritage of persistent organic pollutants, including PCBs and organo-chlorine pesticides, left behind by the US military when it quit its bases at Clark and Subic Bay in 1991. Mozambique has a stockpile of more than 500 tonnes of obsolete pesticides, nearly 50 tonnes of which are globally banned. About 200 tonnes of the total are known to have been exported by two large Western companies. In many cases, the chemicals are stored in drums which are unlabelled and leaking. Other countries have been left with obsolete pesticides provided as part of aid programmes.

The Basel Convention now controls the hazardous waste trade. In some cases, industry’s response has been to export itself rather than the waste, relocating to countries where controls on pollution and waste disposal are less strong than at home. Western consumers do not want reminding of the pollution that is, to some degree, inseparable from their lifestyles and so may turn a blind eye to the dirty part of the production business going to poorer countries.

With serious question marks over both landfill and incineration – and with the trade coming under control – the problem of what to do with hazardous wastes (and wastes of all sorts) is increasing. And so are the wastes themselves. Peter Jones, Director of Development at Biffa Waste Services Limited, has estimated that every tonne of goods produced in Britain, for example, gives rise to at least 10 tonnes of waste, and often more.

‘We are running a highly efficient waste generation economy in a framework of total resource consumption,’ he says. ‘In some cases that means that we capture only about 1 per cent of the resources that enter the economy.’

Is this really necessary? The OECD waste hierarchy shows the way out, by giving the highest priorities to reusing waste and, even better, cutting the amount that is produced in the first place. Clean technologies minimize waste and make better use of raw materials. It may not always be possible to eliminate waste entirely – some processes will inevitably result in hazardous by-products – but drastically reducing it makes good economic and environmental sense. Waste can become a resource.

Resource-efficient society
Peter Jones stresses that this remains a minority view: ‘Most companies are just looking for quick fixes, like saving and recycling paper,’ he says. ‘Very few are asking: Why are we making this in the first place? How can we change the composition of our product so that what is left behind can be useful to someone else?’

But some companies have advanced well down this road. Rod Aspinwall, who helps firms to think through what sustainable development means for them, says: ‘There are big agendas opening up for big corporations about corporate citizenship and sustainable development. Some transnational corporations are thinking about a more resource-efficient society – and they will not be imposing burdens on developing countries.’

If this view takes hold waste will be seen for what it really is – a waste

Alex Kirby is a journalist and broadcaster specializing in environmental issues.

PHOTOGRAPH: David Hoffman/Still Pictures


Many consumer products contain hazardous chemicals. Such ‘household chemical wastes’ are increasing. There is little information about their extent, but The Netherlands is estimated to produce 41,000 tonnes of them a year.

They are particularly important because they are usually disposed of as normal rubbish, without the special precautions laid down for hazardous wastes. Special care needs to be taken in disposing of them. Some countries segregate them from other household waste before sending it for disposal. In other countries municipalities may make special arrangements to receive them, or retailers may take them back for disposal.

PLASTICS – organochlorine compounds, organic solvents in PVC

PESTICIDES – organochlorine compounds, organophosphate compounds

MEDICINES – organic solvents and residues, traces of heavy metals

PAINTS – heavy metals, pigments, solvents, organic residues

BATTERIES – heavy metals

OIL, GASOLINE (and other petroleum products) – oil, phenols and other organic compounds, heavy metals, ammonia, salt acids, caustics

METALS – heavy metals, pigments, abrasive plating salts, oils, phenols

LEATHERS – heavy metals

TEXTILES – heavy metal dyes, organochlorine compounds

List compiled by the European Environment Agency

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:
John Whitelaw: Implementing the plan (Chemicals) 1997
Alemayehu Wodageneh: Trouble in store (Chemicals) 1997