A MONUMENTAL challenge

 Pierre Portas says that the next big task for the Basel Convention is to promote the environmentally sound management and minimization of hazardous waste

Hazardous wastes continue to be generated. Chemicals become more and more complex, causing further difficulties in disposing of them. Many countries have neither the capacity nor the capability to manage their waste in an environmentally sound way – and will not get them in the near future. Emerging problems such as the fate of end-of-life equipment are just around the corner. And the toxic heritage – including the contamination of soil or the existence of large quantities of stockpiles of obsolete pesticides – is scary.

It all adds up to a monumental challenge for the world community. Developed countries already spend a sizeable portion of their gross domestic product just in managing waste. So, what next? Pragmatic and innovative approaches are needed.

Hazardous waste management is an integrated activity in which waste generators, carriers, disposers and other handlers in the chain share responsibility for ensuring that the job is done well. It is important not to think of it just as a matter for waste disposal contractors; those who generate waste, in particular, have the major role in providing the information needed for proper disposal decisions and for ensuring that environmentally sound choices are made.

Instrument for integration
The Basel Convention represents the only global and comprehensive international legal instrument that addresses the integrated dimension of hazardous waste. It provides for an effective and stringent system for controlling their transboundary movements and ensuring their proper disposal; it clearly defines the obligations of Parties to comply with its provisions. It addresses the critical and difficult issue of preventing and monitoring illegal traffic. Its legal framework is being strengthened further through the preparation of a protocol on liability and compensation. Furthermore, in the fast-evolving world of waste and control of hazardous chemicals, the Basel Convention has the capacity to nurture links and enhance synergies with other conventions or programmes that deal with the control of production, use, trade and disposal of such chemicals.

The first 10 years of the Convention concentrated on consolidating its control system, legal framework and operation through improving the classification of wastes and refining the work on their hazard characterization. One of the major challenges for its next decade is to improve the practical implementation of the concept of environmentally sound management. This is enlarging its focus by addressing issues such as patterns of production, product design, technological innovations and the behaviour of consumers. As a result, partnerships must be nurtured with all stakeholders – states, industry, services, environmental non-governmental organizations and municipalities.
Locally affordable, socially acceptable and environmentally sound methods should be encouraged and promoted

The 131 Parties to the Convention have taken responsible action to meet this challenge, building on its achievements over the last 10 years. At the Fifth meeting of the Conference of the Parties in December 1999 the Parties will consider how to set the agenda for the next 10 years to meet environmentally sound management objectives.

Environmentally sound management should be guaranteed in any place at any time and should be accessible to everyone. The key element is practicability, in particular in local conditions and different circumstances, taking into account the macro-economics of waste management, including options for recycling or recovery operations. The Conference of the Parties has adopted the criteria and principles that constitute environmentally sound management, the framework in which concrete actions take place.

Environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes will require knowledge of:

  • The purpose, scope and definition of the operation and descriptions of technologies and of the efficiency of the operation.

  • Environmental hazards.

  • The suitability of the waste for the operation.

  • Opportunities for waste avoidance.

  • Opportunities for recovery.

  • Criteria for operating technology soundly, and related safety aspects. These should include, as appropriate for information purposes, examples of national and international standards and regulations.

  • Principles for assessing the predicted environmental impacts of establishing and operating the facility, site selection parameters, technology options, and construction/design and management plans.

  • Guidance on monitoring and, when needed, appropriate corrective action.

  • Guidance on closure plans and aftercare.

  • The economic aspects of the disposal or recovery operation.
Minimizing hazardous waste, and preventing it being generated in the first place, are fundamental to the practical implementation of environmentally sound management. Work in this field should build on the experience gained by UNEP and other international organizations such as the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.

This concerns:

  • Identifying existing information on cleaner production methods for preventing the generation of hazardous wastes.

  • Assessing available substitutes so as to avoid using hazardous substances as far as possible.

  • Using the best available technology and cleaner production techniques on selected production processes.

  • Eliminating obsolete technologies.

  • Embracing integrated pollution control, and management plans for production facilities.
Progress in minimizing hazardous wastes will, of course, not alleviate the burden of disposing of existing hazardous wastes or of those that will be generated anyway, nor, naturally, where it is not practicable nor economically feasible to reduce hazardous waste generation unless proper action is taken. In many cases dumping – usually in largely uncontrolled and unplanned operations or sites – will continue to be the only option available.

There is considerable controversy and concern over the extent to which each country could or should seek to provide suitable, environmentally sound options for all its waste. There is fairly broad acceptance that developed countries should generally be expected to be self-sufficient in waste disposal, insofar as this is environmentally sound and economically efficient. But the position is different for other countries, particularly developing ones. There the question is one of judging the extent to which it is possible or necessary to provide a full range of facilities, when the need for at least the more specialized options may be very limited and out of all proportion to the cost and resource implications of providing them. The more specialized plant and equipment is invariably the most expensive to buy and operate, and needs the most skilled and trained people. Given fiercely competing demands on these countries’ limited resources, the decision could be that the investment cannot be justified, and that export to a suitable facility elsewhere is the most appropriate, environmentally sound option on a short, medium or long-term basis.

Need for innovation
Clearly, environmentally sound management will long remain unachievable, unless there are substantial efforts to help developing countries build their capacity to manage their waste properly and to reduce the worldwide generation of hazardous wastes. Innovative financial and economic mechanisms should be conceptualized, developed and used. Locally affordable, socially acceptable and environmentally sound methods, techniques and technologies should be encouraged and promoted, making use of the regional and subregional centres established in the framework of the Basel Convention.

In the Convention, the main focus will be on concrete actions to strengthen cooperation among all stakeholders for enhancing the prevention and minimization of the generation of hazardous wastes, and on the institutional, legal, scientific and technical capacity and ability of developing countries to access cleaner technologies and manage their waste in an environmentally sound way.

Environmentally sound management requires collective commitments. This fosters the hope that, by combining efforts and sharing the burden, the international community can come to grips with the immense challenge posed by the generation of hazardous wastes

Pierre Portas is Senior Programme Officer of the Secretariat of the Basel Convention.

PHOTOGRAPH: David Hoffman/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:
Issue on Chemicals 1997