The politics of waste and transboundary movement of waste into Africa Research Series: Part 1

This paper is one of a three-part research series exploring the transboundary movement of toxic waste from developed to developing countries. This first part research series traces some of the reasons for the movement of toxic waste from northern to southern countries, focusing especially on waste imports into the African continent. International and regional African policy efforts to help control the shipment of toxic waste across nation states are highlighted (i.e. Basel and Bamako Conventions). The failure of some of these political responses to control transboundary movement of waste is examined. Those factors that serve as an incentive for the transboundary shipment of waste are discussed (i.e. reduced costs for developed nations, weak enforcement and corruption in developing countries, globalisation and criminal networks). This paper builds on research series parts two and three which will explore the impacts of toxic waste trafficking on human health and the environment (Part 2), as well as proposed solutions to eliminate the production of toxic waste and waste trafficking (Part 3).

As developed countries increasingly submerge under the pressure of growing consumer waste, developing countries will continue to be used as a dumping ground for the waste of industrialised nations. From 1968 to 1988 alone, more than 3.6 million tonnes of toxic waste solvents, acetone, cobalt, cadmium, chemical and pharmaceutical waste, and perhaps some low-level radioactive waste were shipped to less developed nations. Records of dumping have been recorded since the early 1970’s. Strong environmental movements, the Not-in-My-Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome, and strong legislative responses to hazardous waste disposal in developed countries have drastically increased the costs of hazardous waste management for industry, making the exports of industrial wastes quite attractive. As environmentalism and public opposition to waste siting increased in industrialised countries, cross-national trade in hazardous waste became a common practice in the 1970s and escalated between the 1980s and the 1990s.

Unfortunately, Africa like many other developing nations has been the target for imported waste. Some examples of early imports of hazardous waste into Africa have included the shipment in 1987 of 18,000 barrels of hazardous waste (i.e. polychlorinated biphenyls) into Nigeria from the Italian companies Ecomar and Jelly Wax, which agreed to pay a local farmer $100 per month for storage. Thor Chemicals Inc of Great Britain, a mercury processing plant, which relocated to South Africa in the late 1970’s was also accused in 1987 of importing waste into Durban, resulting in severe human health and environmental impacts. (Refer to research Series Part 2: Case study on Thor Chemicals for human health and environmental impacts). In 1997, a few European companies’ dumped 10 million tonnes of toxic waste in Southern Somalia in exchange for $80 million. The alleged perpetrators were Italian and Swiss firms who supposedly entered into a contract with the Somali government during the civil war to dump waste in the war-ravaged African nation. For the past 15 years, the coast of Somalia has been used as an illegal dumping ground for several European companies who have dumped their most toxic substances including nuclear and chemical wastes into Somalia’s waters.

Developed countries produce more toxic waste than they are willing to handle and the price of unsustainable development is being paid by the poorest populations on the globe. Most of the hazardous waste produced in the world has been from developed countries. Commonly exported hazardous wastes include acids, asbestos, automobile scrap, computer/electronic scrap, banned pesticides and agrochemicals, hospital waste, dioxins containing wastes from fossil fuel electric power stations, scrap tires, scrap PVCs, mercury waste, lead acid batteries, and metallic and galvanic sludge’s, all known to be lethal. Other wastes imported to developing countries include raw sewage, sludge, incinerated ashes, and contaminated oils, chemical substances, acids, poisonous solvents ejected by chemical, pharmaceutical, and fertiliser producing plants. 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. Annually, more than 50 percent of the officially acknowledged volume of exported hazardous waste is channelled to less developed nations. The number of countries involved in export and import schemes, volume of trade, and properties of materials involved are often difficult to establish due to the covert and criminal nature of the transactions. This illegal dumping represents an enormous source of profits for criminal organisations, corrupt politicians and unscrupulous businessmen, both in African and developed countries. However, in recent years, the remuneration for firms in industrialised countries has increased even further, as they have been able to sell toxic waste to African countries under the label of ‘second-hand goods.’

Waste Politics:
International and African efforts to control transboundary movement of waste
The problem of transboundary movements of waste into Africa has become a major international environmental and trade issue. This prompted a number of political attempts to regulate and monitor the international transport of hazardous waste. The Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (1989) is the first global attempt to regulate and monitor the transboundary movement of hazardous waste. The Convention entered into force on 5 May 1992. At the Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention, the global community agreed by consensus to forbid developing countries from importing hazardous wastes. On March 25, 1994, the Basel Convention took an unprecedented and historic step and adopted consensus on a global ban on the export of hazardous wastes from the wealthiest and high waste producing countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to all other countries. Unfortunately, of 168 signatory states of the Basel Convention, only 68 countries have ratified the convention. A key player, the United States which produces 85% of hazardous waste has still not ratified the convention (Figure 1). This inevitably strikes a blow at its universal character. However ratification by some of the most waste intensive producing countries is not the only problem to the importation of toxic waste into Africa, a key loophole in the Basel Convention is that it allows waste to be exported to the less industrialised countries if the waste is destined for ‘recycling’ (i.e. dumping), with much waste trade involving some false pretext of recycling. Despite the efforts of the Basel Convention some participatory countries have continued to export toxic waste to less developed countries.

An African effort to control the movement of hazardous waste into Africa has been the Bamako Convention on the Ban of import into Africa and the control of transboundary movement and management of hazardous waste within Africa (1991). This Convention actually emerged during the negotiation of the Basel Convention when the African states represented by the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) adopted the Bamako Convention, as they were of the view that Basel was not strict enough regarding the total ban on exporting hazardous wastes into Africa and other relevant regional aspects. The Bamako Convention later went into force in 1996. The Bamako Convention has helped to stem partially toxic waste flowing into Africa. In the early 1980s, Africa was regarded as an easy target for the dumping of a whole range of hazardous materials, including industrial, pharmaceutical and radioactive wastes, as well as banned pesticides and toxic incinerator ash. Since African countries entered the Bamako agreement banning all waste imports, the international toxic traders have directed most of their efforts elsewhere (i.e. Since 1990, Australian, North American and European countries have shipped over 5 million tonnes of toxic wastes to Asia, mostly “scrap metal”, but also including large quantities of plastic and lead wastes, cadmium, aluminium, copper, tin, nickel, zinc, ash and residues, medical wastes, electronic-waste and other hazardous and radioactive wastes.) Nevertheless, the importation of waste into Africa continues to be a major problem.

Despite these significant attempts to curb the transboundary movement of waste (as above), the market for toxic waste has continued to treat Africa like a dump. This calls into question the efficacy of the current legal frameworks to tackle problems. Other recent global policy initiatives related to the transboundary movement of hazardous waste include the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) adopted in 2001, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, and the the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) adopted in 2006. SAICM is a policy framework to foster the sound management of chemicals and to ensure that by the year 2020, ensuring chemicals are produced and used in ways that minimise significant adverse impacts on the environment and human health. It remains to be seen if these new initiatives will help stem the flow of hazardous waste imports into Africa, considering that previous global agreements have not been adhered to by some countries (i.e. In 2000 South Africa imported hazardous wastes from Australia in defiance of Basel Convention against such exports). And while initiatives such as SAICM are welcome, this policy tool is a non-binding agreement. Since even ratifying parties to the binding Basel have previously defied this agreement, one needs to questions if non-binding agreements will make any difference to help stem waste trafficking. However, the objective of SAICM which is to change how chemicals are produced and used in order to minimise harmful effects on human health and the environment is a fresh approach to help curb the production of toxic waste. These and other initiatives to help reduce toxic waste production will be discussed more in part three of this research series.

Despite efforts such as the Basel and Bamako Convention to stop toxic waste trafficking, toxic waste disposal still occurs in Africa. Reports in 2006 highlighted tonnes of poisonous chemical sludge dumped at various sites around the port city of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire when waste was offloaded from the Probo Koala, a tanker registered in Panama that had been chartered by a Dutch-based oil trader. A joint undercover investigation by Greenpeace, The Independent, and Sky News, revealed in February 2009, that tonnes of toxic electronic wastes such as computers and televisions from British municipal dumps are being illegally shipped to Nigeria despite the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EU WEE) directive which calls for safe disposal of such waste. According to The independent, hundreds of thousands of discarded items, which under British law must be dismantled or recycled by specialist contractors, are being packaged into cargo containers and shipped to countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, where they are stripped of their raw metals by young men between 15 and 20 years and children working on poisoned waste dumps.

Under WEEE, IT manufacturers are legally responsible for the safe disposal of their products and are obliged to ensure all products are disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner themselves or sign up with a government-approved waste-handling firm. Experts claim the legislation “lacks teeth” and its enforcement body, the Environment Agency, is badly underfunded. The Environment Agency has no staff to oversee those who knowingly flout the WEEE directive. This further highlights WEEE weaknesses in controlling imports of waste into Africa. Unfortunately, obsolete computers, mobile phones and electronic appliances containing toxic substances have been sold by industries claiming to promote the “digitalization” of Africa. The large majority of these devices, however, are no longer usable when they reach the continent and end up in open-air dumping sites, where waste-pickers burn them to extract metals such as copper or aluminium. In Nigeria, 75 % of the imported second-hand computing equipment are neither economically repairable nor saleable. Then, having been dismantled to extract precious metals, these types of equipment join unchecked discharges where they are burned.

Reduced costs for developed nations: An easy way out
African nations have been used as the dumping sites for hazardous toxic waste materials from developed countries that are out to reduce the costs of disposing or recycling these by-products of industries. Caught in a stranglehold by economic hardship, many African nations have been lured by the potential financial gains, which in some cases have exceeded the GDP of many poor countries, of importing hazardous waste from the West. Although they lack adequate installations of dangerous waste treatment, numerous African countries (Benin, Congo-Brazzaville, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Nigeria, Togo, Somalia and others) imported whole cargoes of toxic (industrial sludge, cyanides, solvents, pesticides, pharmaceutical waste) and even nuclear waste at very low prices of between 2.5 and 40 dollars a ton against about 75 – 300 dollars, the cost of elimination in industrial nations. In 2001 it was estimated by a United States government official that it would cost from $250 to $300 a tonne to dispose of toxic wastes within the country, whereas some developing countries would accept the same wastes for as little as $40 per tonne. The US frequently exports waste to developing countries, allowing producers and consumers to take advantage of very low labour costs and less stringent environmental and occupational regulations. Reports showed that as of April 2006, 500 loads of computer equipment were arriving in Lagos, Nigeria each month. As much as 75 percent of the incoming equipment mostly from governmental entities in the United States is unusable and are simply dumped. Unfortunately, industries dump hazardous electronic waste in Africa under the guise of charity.

Weak enforcement and corruption in developing countries
Strong legislative and enforcement in responses to hazardous waste disposal in developed countries have drastically increased the costs of waste disposal for the northern industry. Weak legislation and enforcement, as well as corrupt government officials in some southern countries, has resulted in northern industries exporting their waste to these countries for disposal. The level of corruption was noted during the report on poisonous chemical sludge dumped at various sites around the port city of Abidjan (as above). The report into the dumping points an accusatory finger at corrupt and indifferent officials, and the local company contracted to handle the waste. The government-appointed commission of inquiry also charged top officials with negligence and divided responsibility all along the administrative chain of command down to the level of local authorities. Abidjan port management also was noted to have ‘displayed notorious complicity’ with the polluters. The Ivorian company called Tommy agreed to dispose of the waste for under $20,000 (€15,000), which was sixteen times cheaper than officials in the Netherlands were going to charge the polluters. Officials from African countries may also be unlikely to address waste disposal problems as they must often turn a blind eye to environmental abuses to successfully compete for foreign investment. The complicity of some government officials may sometimes be bought by bribery. Since southern countries are passive, powerless or negligible actors in global environmental policy formulation and implementation, environmental burdens are continuously channelled to the Third World with a path of least or no resistance. Another factor that makes the current pattern of toxic waste dumping quite prevalent and attractive to multinational corporations (MNCs) is poverty or desperation to accept pollution for cash in many poor countries. Unfortunately, the short-term economic gains by both MNCs and the hosts generally overshadow the long-term adverse environmental and public health consequences.

Globalisation and criminal networks
Criminal networks have benefited from the toxic waste trade and have helped accelerate waste imports into Africa. Criminal networks are increasingly free of geographic constraints. Globalisation has not only expanded illegal markets and boosted the size and the resources of criminal networks but it has also imposed more burdens on governments. In Italy, the transportation and illegal trafficking of toxic waste is widely acknowledged. The word ’eco-mafia’ was created to describe organised criminal networks that profit from dumping or illegally disposing of commercial, industrial or radioactive waste. The ‘ecomafia’ sometimes hide behind a legal front in the waste treatment industry. From emission to final disposal this trade involves many other players, including shipping agents and brokers. Waste may pass through several countries, making it all the more difficult to pinpoint responsibilities. The prime victims are developing countries and conflict zones. In Italy, an estimated 30% of the special waste processing business is thought to be owned by the ‘ecomafia’ who win contracts quite legally and take care of waste by dumping it mainly in Africa. Eco-crime in Italy involves 202 organised groups, with €22.4 thousand million revenue in 2005. Though profit is the main incentive, the limited risks are also attractive. Environmental offences are not a priority and police pressure is consequently lower. Clearly, a much more united international effort is needed to combat criminal networks that deal in toxic waste trading that impact on developing nations like Africa.

Unfortunately, Africa like many other developing countries will continue to be used as a dumping ground for the increased consumerism waste of developed nations. This is considering that global waste generation was about 12.7 billion tonnes in 2000, and is expected to rise to about 19.0 billion tonnes in 2025 and to about 27.0 billion tonnes in 2050. The world’s consumption of primary energy (and hence waste production) is forecast to increase by around 50 percent between the years 2003 to 2030. As long as world leaders, especially in developed nations, continue to ignore important agreements to control the production of waste and the control of transboundary waste flows, import of waste into Africa and other developed countries will continue for decades to come. It will be important that African leaders through the OAU create an international voice for themselves 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 leaders should not allow the importation of toxic waste into Africa since the continent should not be used as a dumping ground for the waste of developed economies that further trap poor nations into economic, health and environmental hardships. This must also include a process whereby a national task force is put in place to root out corruption and opportunism in African countries that help facilitate toxic waste trafficking, impacting on the health and environment for local populations. However, what are the problems for human health and the environment for transboundary movements of toxic waste in developing nations? This will be addressed in part 2 of this research series.

Leonard, L. (2009) The politics of waste and the transboundary movement of waste into Africa, Research Series – Part 1, Ugandan Parliamentary Briefing, Royal African Society, United Kingdom, 6 March.

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