Shutting down a toxic trade

With nearly 100 countries on board, an international agreement which bans the exporting of toxic waste from developed to developing countries has entered into force. While this landmark move will help protect the environment and ensure that poor countries do not become dumping grounds for the rich, the absence of dozens of countries from the deal undermines its effectiveness.

Today, 5 December 2019, 97 countries have prohibited the movement of toxic waste from developed to developing countries. Although it comes a quarter of a century after it was first envisaged, the entry into force of the 1995 Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention, which bans the export of all kinds of toxic waste, is, nonetheless, a massive success for international law. 

The Basel Convention is an international treaty which restricts the flow of hazardous waste, especially between richer and poorer countries. Earlier this year, the 187 countries who have signed up to the Basel Convention agreed to classify non-recyclable and hard-to-recycle mixed plastics as hazardous, thereby restricting their movement between countries.

The Ban Amendment is “the most important idea ever conceived to promote environmental justice at a global level” said Jim Puckett, director of the Basel Action Network (BAN). “There can be no excuse for using the developing world as the dumping ground for the toxic effluent of the affluent,” added Puckett, who has been involved with BAN for some three decades.

Wasted opportunity

Nevertheless, the Ban Amendment leaves half of all countries off the hook and it does not address the damage that has already been done. After so many years of wealthy countries dumping toxic waste on the world’s poorest communities, there remains a noxious legacy in dire need of solutions.

The devastating health and environmental consequences of the transnational trade in toxic waste are evidenced in Arica, a city in northern Chile. In the mid-1980s, Swedish mining company Boliden exported several shipments of toxic waste to Chilean mining company Promel SA, on the apparent understanding that it would be processed. The waste material contained weapons-grade arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals. Only minimal amounts of the waste were ever processed, and the remainder – nearly 20,000 tonnes – was left uncovered and unprotected for many years. 

The site at the edge of Arica soon became a playground for local children, with horrific consequences. The community has suffered, and in many cases continues to suffer, from an array of conditions that include cancer, neurological disorders, miscarriage and birth defects, according to the Environmental Justice Atlas. Today, there are an estimated 12,000 victims.

Arica is just one example where the health and environmental consequences of the cross-border trade in toxic waste have been catastrophic. Almost daily reports of communities suffering reveal that it has become a global issue. For example, according to BAN, “unscrupulous US recyclers” export hundreds of containers of hazardous electronic waste each week to developing countries for so-called “recycling”. This involves burning, melting and chemically stripping electronic waste by poorly paid and ill-protected workers, often in the open air, in highly polluting operations.

Return to sender

Now that the Ban Amendment has entered into force, what would happen today if a company like Boliden shipped its waste to a place like Arica? 

The company would be in breach of international law. The remedy for such a breach, according to Article 8 of the Basel Convention, requires that the hazardous material be repatriated to the state from which it emanated – in this case, Sweden. 

Calls for the repatriation of waste are already arising in Indonesia, where the government has reported sending 331 containers of contaminated waste materials back to their countries of origin.

Nevertheless, for those engaged in the fight for environmental justice, there is still much to do. The Ban Amendment applies only to the 97 States that have currently signed up to it. Many countries – including significant producers of waste – have yet to sign. They include the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, India and Brazil. 

It may be that entry into force of the Amendment, a growing awareness of the global impacts of our waste and the monitoring activities of specialist NGOs will create the momentum and pressure required to generate further ratifications. “With the Ban Amendment now a legal certainty, we hope the countries that have to date refused to ratify will do so and close the sad chapter of toxic colonialism done in the name of recycling,” urged Puckett.


Dr Ellie Smith is a Principal Associate of Global Security and Disaster Management Ltd, a UK-based consultancy firm. She is also a member of the Arica Impact team.

The text has been published in META, The news channel of the European Environmental Bureau

By Dr Ellie Smith