Solutions towards eliminating waste and the transboundary movement of toxic waste Research Series: Part 3

This paper is the final part of a three-part research series exploring the transboundary movement of toxic waste from developed to developing countries and waste disposal. Part one highlighted some of the reasons for the movement of toxic waste from northern to southern countries, focusing especially on waste imports into the African continent. Part two examined some of the environmental and human health effects of transboundary waste movements and disposal in Africa. This final paper looks at some solutions towards eliminating waste and its impacts on people and the environment. If focuses on some international policy efforts to stem the producing of toxic waste, including complementary initiatives such as the Africa Stockpile Programme (ASP) aimed at cleaning up hazardous waste previously dumped in Africa. It also examines technological disposal treatments for toxic waste including comparing both thermal and non-thermal treatment options. The paper finally examines cleaner production (CP) and life cycle assessment (LCA) techniques, which can be used by industry to eliminate toxic waste at source. Recommendations for African governments are highlighted.

Northern countries generate an enormous volume of toxic waste, which is either impossible or extremely costly to recycle. As noted in research series part one, the United States generates 85% of the world’s hazardous wastes, while European Union countries generate about 10% of the world total, amounting to a staggering 95% of the world’s hazardous wastes produced by industrialised nations. This has resulted in large amounts of toxic waste being shipped illegally to third world countries, especially Africa. This practice has resulted in enormous amounts of destruction to both human health and the environment. This illegal dumping has resulted in enormous sources of profits for criminal organisations (e.g. Italian ‘ecomafia’), corrupt politicians and unscrupulous businessmen, both in African and developed countries. This environmental injustice, especially on the poorest populations in Africa cannot go on without end. The prohibition on toxic waste exports involves reducing toxic waste generation to a minimum and ensuring that the disposal of any waste produced is done in an environmentally sound way, and as near as possible to the source of generation. This will also require adhering to agreements and restrictions imposed on toxic waste production and exports/imports, and commitments from governments globally to work together to limit and eventually eliminate the impacts imposed by waste and waste trafficking.

International efforts to alleviate waste impacts on people and the environment
Recognition of the risks that hazardous waste poses to the human health and the environment has led to significant progress at the international level to address problems. In addition to the Basel and Bamako Convention outlined in Research Series: Part 1, there have also been other initiatives to limit the impact of toxic waste on human health and the environment. The Rotterdam Convention (1998) on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade entered into force in 2004. The aim of the convention is to promote shared responsibility and cooperative efforts among Parties regarding the international trade of certain hazardous chemicals in order to protect human health and the environment from potential harm. The convention also aims to contribute to the environmentally sound use of hazardous chemicals, by facilitating information exchange about their characteristics, and by providing for a national decision-making process on their import and export and by disseminating these decisions to Parties. The convention creates legally binding obligations for the implementation of the PIC procedure and covers pesticides and industrial chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted for health or environmental reasons by Parties, and which have been notified by Parties for inclusion in the PIC procedure.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) is also a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods. The Stockholm Convention (2001) entered into force 2004 and requires Parties to take measures to eliminate or reduce the release of POPs into the environment. However, as research series part 1 noted, despite significant policy attempts to curb the transboundary movement of waste, the market for toxic waste has continued to treat Africa like a dump, calling into question the efficacy of the current legal frameworks to tackle problems. Some of the most polluting industrial countries (i.e. the US) responsible for producing most toxic waste impacting on Africa have also not ratified some of these important conventions. (Refer to research series part two for recent examples of transboundary movement of waste into Africa and impacts on human health and the environment).

Programmes to rid Africa of toxic waste
The Africa Stockpiles Programme (ASP)
An initiative to rid Africa of toxic waste through identification, containment, treatment and disposal has been the ASP. The ASP’s has a dual goal of removing stockpiles of hazardous waste, especially obsolete pesticides from Africa while investing in systems to prevent a recurrence of the problem. The ASP was initiated in 2000 by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) at the same time negotiations for the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) (above) were coming to a close. The ASP aims to address the accumulation of obsolete pesticide stockpiles across the African continent. The ASP was initiated to clean up stockpiled pesticides and pesticide-contaminated waste (e.g. containers and equipment) in Africa in an environmentally sound manner; catalyse the development of prevention measures; and provide capacity building and institutional strengthening on important chemicals-related issues. Africa’s stockpiles of poisonous chemicals have been accumulating over the past 40 years and longer. The problem has been spurred by poor training, weak controls, and aggressive marketing by chemical manufacturers, who sold (and dumped on) African countries more pesticides than they needed. The chemicals mainly include brands such as Dieldron, DDT, and a range of organophosphate pesticides used mainly for crop protection. Stocks of obsolete pesticides currently in Africa are estimated at 50,000 tonnes. Due to the serious threat to the health of both rural and urban populations, especially the poorest of the poor and environmental degradation, African countries were requesting assistance with their pesticides. The ASP started with seven initial countries (i.e. Ethiopia, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Tunisia). A multi-stakeholder partnership was established bringing together skills and expertise of multinational organisations, international non-governmental organisations, governments and industry. Mali and South Africa hold the largest stocks of obsolete pesticides in Africa. In South Africa, this is related to the activities of the Apartheid regime while for Mali, government authorities had allowed foreign companies to keep large stocks of these products in their country.

Disposal of Obsolete stocks – a move away from incineration in Africa
In January 2003 the author attended a workshop held by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) for the development of a National Implementation Plan (NIP) for the management of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and strategies to clean up and prevent future accumulation of unwanted stocks of pesticides under the ASP. Of concern was that under the section “Disposal Phase”, non-burn technologies were not included as an option, with incinerator vendors present at the meeting and given an opportunity to market their combustion treatment. From the very beginning of the ASP, civil society groups (internationally and in Africa) have voiced concern about the burning of wastes in incinerators, since incinerators contribute substantially to global pollution by producing deadly poisons such as dioxins and furans. Health effects of incineration as a disposal technology include transferring toxic metals into the human blood stream by inhalation, deposition and absorption, and producing cancer-causing toxins (i.e. dioxins and furans) putting human health and the environment at risks. It would be tragic if Africa was left standing with a new legacy of polluting incinerators (waste itself) set up to destroy an earlier legacy caused by hazardous waste dumped on Africa by aid and trade organisations.

The ASP organised a Stakeholders Forum in Rabat, Morroco, October 17-18, 2007 to discuss progress and expansion of the continent-wide effort aimed at eliminating existing stockpiles of obsolete pesticides and preventing their future accumulation. The Rabat Programme of Action agreed on certain principles (Refer to figure 1). One of the points of agreement was that obsolete stocks would be disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. Since incineration is not an environmentally sound option for disposal of hazardous waste; it, therefore, cannot be an option for disposal in Africa. The ASP aims to dispose of pesticides and associated wastes in an ‘environmentally sound’ manner in accordance with national and international laws, including the Stockholm Convention. It will require proof that a candidate disposal facility operates in compliance with these standards. Due to the pollution emitted from incinerators especially in Africa due to lack of strong enforcement and regulation, the toxic ash requiring special containment and disposal in special landfill sites, as well as conventions like Stockholm that recognise incineration as a principle source of cancer-causing dioxin formation makes incineration as a disposal technology unfeasible.

Because of human health and environmental concerns of incineration, there has been a move away from incineration internationally. This is true for countries such as USA, India, Greece, Germany, France, Turkey, Japan, The Netherlands, Costa Rica, Mexico and the Philippines. However, within Africa there have been cases where governments and civil society has refused international efforts to shift this polluting technology into Africa. In 2001, private company, Peacock Bay Environmental Services (PBES) and the United States based company Roy F. Weston proposed to construct a hazardous waste incinerator in Sasolburg, in the Free State Province, South Africa. The incinerator was the largest hazardous waste incinerator proposed in Southern Africa. Due to pressure from civil society, the Free State Department of Environment, Tourism and Economic Affairs rejected the application by PBES on health and procedural grounds. Similarly, a previous Danish Aid Agency, DANIDA proposed to build a permanent hazardous waste incinerator to address Mozambique’s obsolete pesticide problem, was rejected by the Mozambique Ministry of Environment in the early 1990’s. The provincial government Department of Health (DOH) in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Durban, South Africa also took a policy decision in 2003 to phase out incineration in provincial state hospitals due to civil society concerns over incineration and after successful attempts by a national environmental justice NGO groundWork to help two rural hospitals implement waste reduction programmes, which resulted in impressive cost savings for disposal. One of the largest medical waste incinerators has since been shut down. It is hoped that other African governments will learn from these examples and follow suit to ensure that Africa does not continue to be used as a dumping ground for toxic waste, including obsolete technologies.

Alternative non-combustion technologies
A number of commercialised ‘no-burn’ technologies can destroy POPs, however, non-combustion facilities have not yet bid to handle waste from the stockpiles of hazardous waste under the ASP. This has been due to their current inability to cope with the state of the toxic waste and their inability to offer a service to collect and transport the waste such as are offered by companies running high-temperature incinerators and weakness of the non-combustion waste treatment industry. This suggests a need for more incentive from the government to invest in these types of non-combustion technologies. However, if toxic waste under the ASP is to be disposed off immediately via incineration until non-thermal technologies are strengthened (instead of eventually leaking into the ground), the waste would need to be exported for safe destruction in a developed country such as Europe, which has the resources and strong regulations in place for disposal via incineration. This has also been the position advocated by international environmental organisations during the ASP. However, incineration should only be used to ‘one-off’ dispose of ASP waste and should not create an incentive for other waste to be incinerated. However, three ‘no-burn technologies’ which governments worldwide should support politically include:

Gas phase chemical reduction (GPCR)
The process includes hydrogen reacting with the wastes at 800-900 degrees and at low pressure. This converts the waste to methane, hydrogen chloride and some light hydrocarbons. This takes places in an oxygen-free environment reducing the likelihood of cancer-causing dioxin production. Any dioxin present in the waste should also be destroyed. In tests, this process has been effective at destroying at least 99.999% of the POPs. This process has been in use for the destruction of pesticides and POPs waste for several years and can be used for solid and liquid waste. Because hydrogen is used, rather than oxygen (as in incineration processes), there is no risk of forming dioxins and furans during the GPCR reactions. This technology is currently permitted for use in Canada (Ontario), the United States, Japan and Australia.

Based catalysed decomposition (BCD)
This technology is commonly used for liquid waste. Waste is heated to 300-350 degrees in a nitrogen atmosphere at a normal pressure in the presence of a hydrocarbon mixture. Hydrogen given off by the heated mixture decomposes the pesticides/POPs forming inorganic salts, inert residue and water. Old BCD plants discharged measurable amounts of organochlorines and dioxins to air. The new BCD plants can destroy and remove over 99.99999% of input POPs/pesticides/dioxins and emissions can be captured for reprocessing if necessary.

Sodium reduction (SR)
In this process chlorine from PCBs is completely removed by alkali metal reduction with dispersed sodium in mineral oil. This takes place in a dry nitrogen atmosphere at normal pressure. Currently, there is insufficient data on the efficiency of this process at destroying POPs/pesticides, although the process has met regulatory criteria in the USA, EU, Canada, South Africa, Australia and Japan. This technology has been used for several years to treat PCB-contaminated transformer oil, with mobile plants available.

Greening industry and reducing waste at source:
Clean production (CP) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) techniques
If toxic waste trafficking to developing countries and impacts on human health and the environment are to be avoided then industries and governments globally need to stop the production of toxic waste at source. One of the ways for industry to eliminate toxic waste is to ensure that industries adopt sustainable development principles into existing operations. Sustainable development means adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders today while protecting, sustaining and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed now and in the future. CP techniques are a way for industries to integrate sustainable business practices, while also remaining competitive. CP is the continuous application of an integrated preventative environmental strategy to processes, products and services to increase overall efficiency. This leads to improved environmental performance, cost savings, and the reduction of risk to humans and the environment. CP should not be considered only as an environmental strategy since it also relates to economic considerations. In this context, waste is considered to be a product with negative economic value. Each action to reduce consumption of raw materials and energy, and reduce waste generation, increases productivity and brings financial benefits to the industry. Much of today’s environmental protection focuses on what to do with wastes and emissions that have already been created, focusing on ‘end-of-pipe’ treatment. As opposed to this notion, the ultimate goal of CP is to avoid generating pollution in the first place.

Pollution prevention approach implementation (i.e. CP) focuses on finding the source of waste and emissions, performing environmental monitoring on site and identifying the cause of pollution and the consumption of other resources used for waste and emission treatment and reduction of operational costs. While Environmental Management Systems such as ISO 14001 are popular, they provide no guarantee that industries will apply pollution prevention approaches. This can be solved by incorporating principles and methods of pollution prevention into Environmental Management System (EMS) structures. This will stimulate any industry to continue searching for preventative improvements and provides opportunities to manage environmental risks in cost effective ways. LCA which is part of CP allows industry to track the environmental impact of products, services throughout their life and to identify areas of environmental damage. In such way, the redesigning of products, production and distribution methods will reduce environmental damage. Thus greening industry can reduce waste at source and avoid waste trafficking into Africa and other developed countries.

For the greening of industry to occur, this must be based on the incorporation of market-based incentives, a broad commitment to public environmental information, and targeted assistance to industries who are trying to improve environmental performance. This will also require partnerships with community representatives taking their place at the negotiating table along with government, industry and civil society generally. Such partnerships will give policymakers more options in solving the toxic waste production crisis. Governments will also need to improve existing legislation and impose new responsibilities for monitoring factories’ environmental performance and enforcing regulations. All of these will require a fundamental shift in attitudes and changing industrial procedures.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
There is also a need for identified toxic waste to be returned to the producer (if identifiable) which is in line with the principle of EPR. EPR imposes accountability over the entire lifecycle of products and packaging introduced on the market. Firms, which manufacture, import and/or sell products and packaging, are required to be financially or physically responsible for such products after their useful life. They must either take back spent products and manage them through reuse and recycling or dispose of them with limited impact to human health and the environment. The producer may also delegate this responsibility to a third party, paid by the producer for spent product management. In this way, EPR shifts responsibility for waste from government and civil society to the private industry, obliging producers, importers and/or sellers to internalise waste management costs in their product prices. However, for EPR to work requires incentive from governments to implement EPR mechanisms and enforced governance and requires governments globally to work together to eventually reduce and eliminate waste.

Benefits of toxic use reduction legislation – the case of Massachusetts, United States
Massachusetts in the US has achieved a significant reduction of hazardous waste through mandatory company planning. This legislation and training programme has become a model for pollution prevention activities around the world. The Toxic Use Reduction Act (TURA) was passed in 1989. The goal of the legislation is to develop toxics use reduction as its primary tool for industrial pollution control while enhancing the competitive position of Massachusetts enterprises. The first goal was to reduce toxic waste generation by 50 percent through toxics use reduction over a 10 year period (1987-1997). Under the TURA, firms that use any of a list of approximately 800 chemicals in quantities that annually cross a minimum threshold, must annually report publicly on the amount of chemical used and released; pay an annual fee and prepare a plan (updated every two years) on how to reduce or eliminate the use of those chemicals. The chemicals must be certified by a licensed Toxics Use Reduction Planner. Between 1990 and 1993 all firms cut their toxic waste by 14.5 percent and planned to generate 23 percent less waste in 1998, with the total volume of listed toxic chemicals in the state dropping by 6 percent within the first three years. Together, the twenty-nine firms applying for awards in toxics use reduction had eliminated the use of 2,870 tonnes of toxic chemicals, reduced 750 tonnes of hazardous wastes and saved US$44 million per year.

To halt the importation of toxic waste into Africa, African governments will need to place the interest of local populations and the environment above the economic interest of multinational corporations who dump waste in African countries. African governments and local industries will need to stem out corruption and self-interests if this is to be successful. As noted in research series part one, national task forces must be put in place in African countries to root out corruption and opportunism and that also help facilitate toxic waste trafficking, impacting on the health and environment. It is essential that governments adhere to international and African efforts to control toxic waste production and eventual elimination (i.e. Basel, Bamako, and Stockholm Convention) including parallel efforts designed to reduce and eliminate waste (i.e. SAICM, ASP). Despite the increase in toxic waste trafficking since the introduction of many international policy efforts, there is still a need for governments globally to respect efforts to stem toxic waste production and trafficking. It is only through collectively following national and international agreements to reduce, halt and eliminate waste that the problems of toxic waste can be solved. African leaders through the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) must create an international voice and apply pressure on developed nations such as the US, which produces most of the toxic waste globally, to ratify the Basel Convention and its Ban Amendment.

African governments must also ensure that incineration is not allowed as an option for disposal of toxic waste and waste generally in Africa, rather there is a need to move towards non-thermal treatment techniques which will require political and policy incentives. African governments should refuse any attempts for obsolete technological shifts from northern to southern countries. Rather there is a need to go to the root of toxic waste problems and design national legislation to reduce waste at source and compel multinationals operating in their countries (and local industry) to introduce and demonstrate sustainable business strategies. Northern governments will also need to hold industry to account and compel industry to reduce and eliminate toxic waste in production processes. However, this will also require market-based incentives, and increased partnerships and transparency between industry, government and civil society. Such partnerships will give governments and policymakers more options in solving the toxic waste and pollution crisis impacting on human health and the environment. However, governments will need to improve governance structures through improved monitoring of factories’ for environmental performance and by enforcing regulations.

Civil society organisations and governments (and industry) must provide education to inform people about the impacts of toxic waste on human health and the environment to help reduce impacts and identify potential risks. Whether toxic waste trafficking will be eliminated in the future remains to be seen, but as long as there is a lack of altruistic values and attitudes towards human society and nature we will continue to witness toxic waste production and trafficking. As American environmentalist, Aldo Leopold noted, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”. Ultimately, in addition to international policy efforts there is a need for many behavioural changes by industries to implement cleaner production and life cycle assessment techniques that aim to reduce and eliminate waste and toxic waste impacts to humans and the environment, or else it may be too late for the environment and humanity at large. As previous Secretary General of the U.N – U. Thant stated in 1970, “…we must ask ourselves seriously whether we really wish some future universal historian on another planet to say about us: “With all their genius and with all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas,” or, “They went on playing politics until their world collapsed around them.””

Leonard, L. (2009) Solutions towards eliminating the impacts of waste and transboundary movement of waste: Cases from the Africa continent, Research Series – Part 3, Ugandan Parliamentary Briefing, United Kingdom, 17 March.