Klaus Toepfer
United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UNEP

When the world drew up the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal the aim was to outlaw ‘toxic traders’ transporting the deadly chemicals of the developed world to dumping grounds in the developing one. Fifteen years later, the Convention is wrestling with many new and mounting waste streams triggered by, for example, the boom in electronic consumer goods such as the personal computer and the mobile phone. Other debates have spotlighted the disposal of old military vessels and decommissioned fishing boats.

Is a vessel en route from Europe or North America to a breaker’s yard half way across the world a ship heading for dismantling? Or is it hazardous waste, since it is likely to be filled with asbestos, toxic metal sludges and other health-threatening substances? Similarly, shipping huge numbers of computers – outdated by the latest model in a developed country – to a developing one may offer poorer people there a chance to step onto the information technology ladder. Or maybe this is just a clever way of passing on the economic, social and environmental costs of disposal from the consumers and companies of the rich.

The issues are complex, but the solutions may not be. If we focus on generating less waste in the first place, in any form, we are at least on the right track. Through new initiatives, falling under the Convention, the world is now starting to realize this goal. Guiding them are the outcomes of the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Its Plan of Implementation calls for action to change unsustainable patterns of consumption and production.

Focusing on the three Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle – is one way forward. We can reduce the impact of our consumer economies by cutting the quantities of resources and materials used to manufacture goods, from energy and water to the volumes and kinds of plastics, metals and chemicals. Many makers of electronics equipment, for example, can now proudly claim that between 50 and 100 per cent of their products have lead-free solder.

Many products, or their components, can be reused. The Body Shop, for example, offers refillable cosmetics containers. To facilitate recycling, manufacturers need to ensure that their goods can be simply and safely taken apart. Eco-design is key, as are effective and readily accessible collection and recycling facilities.

The theme of the Seventh Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention is ‘Partnership for meeting the global waste challenge’. Governments have a critical role to play through enacting and policing regulations, introducing taxes or levies, and promoting policies, instruments and public awareness that favour the three Rs. But partnerships with industry, business and consumers are also vital. So are those with other areas of the United Nations like the International Maritime Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and secretariats of other environmental agreements – particularly those such as the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

So I am delighted to mention just one of the Basel Convention’s many excellent partnerships, with the Shields Environmental Group. Shields has established a mobile phone recycling plant in Bucharest, Romania, employing 100 people. It is part of a take-back initiative called Fonebak now operating in both the developed and the developing worlds.

Finally, maybe I could make a special, possibly old-fashioned, plea for one more R. Many modern consumer goods end up in the bin because poor design, cost or lack of spare parts makes them impossible to fix when broken. Maybe we should talk not just about reduce, reuse and recycle – but also about repair!


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Building partnerships, mobilizing resources | Much to discuss, much to do | Delivery time | Adolescence and money problems | Complete the job | Creating synergy | New challenges

Complementary issues:
Issue on Chemicals and the environment 2002
Jack Weinberg: Unpopular POPs (Global Environment Facility) 2002
Issue on Hazardous Waste 1999

Secretariat of the Basel Convention: