Wednesday, April 29, 2020 / 04:59 PM / OpEd By Ahmed
Sule* / Header Image Credit: Down to Earth
According to the World Bank, 2.01 billion metric tons of municipal solid waste is produced yearly globally. On a relative basis, the rich countries of the Global North produce a sizeable proportion of the waste. The United States and Canada are the largest global waste producers with each of its citizens generating on average 941 and 850 kilogrammes of waste annually respectively while the UK is one of the largest generators of electronic waste globally producing an average of 21.1 kg of e-waste per citizen.
There is a long history of toxic colonialism whereby rich countries in Europe and North America outsource its toxic waste to the poor countries of the global south for recycling. As the West became more environmentally conscious in the seventies and eighties, the dumping of hazardous waste such as plastics, electronic waste, radioactive materials etc to developing countries with lax environmental standards became the norm. In 1988, around 4,000 tonnes of radioactive materials from Italy were dumped in Nigeria's Koko Port. The trend continues today. Around 40 % of US electronic waste is exported to Africa and Asia while Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have become the hub for the dismantling of ships discarded by industrialised countries. Some commentators have described the Agbogbloshie dump in Ghana, which currently receives e-waste from the West, as the world's largest electronic waste dump.
Before 2018, China was once the world's largest importer of plastic waste accounting for 56% of the waste, however with effect from April 2018, it banned the import of waste products into the country. This had the unintended consequences of developed countries routing some of its waste products to countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. An investigation by Greenpeace revealed that the export of plastic waste from UK, Germany, Spain, France, Australia and the US to Malaysia increased from 168,500 tonnes in 2016 to 456,000 tonnes in the first half of 2018.
As the West continues to outsource its toxic waste to the rest of the world, it also outsources the health and environmental consequences of the waste. People living and working near the sites of these toxic dumps experience respiratory sickness, water contamination, lead poisoning, developmental disorders and cancer, which has resulted in several deaths. In Agbogbloshie where there is a large food market, the toxins from the waste have entered the food chain.
Recently, there has been pushback with some South-East Asian countries putting measures in place to return contaminated waste to the west. The Global South got a boost in late 2019 when Saint Kitts and Nevis and Croatia ratified the Basel Convention Ban Amendment. The Basel Convention is the preeminent global legal instrument regulating the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes. As a consequence of reaching the required threshold for ratifications, the Ban Amendment, which prohibits the export of hazardous waste from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to developing countries, became international law with effect from 5 December 2019.
Despite the enshrinement of the Ban Amendment into international law, the Global South and environmentalists might have to temper their optimism for several reasons. First, even though 98 countries have so far ratified the convention, some of the largest waste producers like the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are yet to ratify the ban amendment, hence they don't fall within the scope of the ban amendment. The USA is not even a party to the Basel Convention Treaty. In 2019, the United States Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the OECD in 2019 expressing its objection to the latter's implementation of the Basel Convention plastic waste amendments.
Second, certain wastes such as tyres and clothes, which have toxic properties and are also dumped in developing countries, are not classified as hazardous under the Basel Convention. The export of used clothes to developing countries has reached unmanageable levels. A recent ITV News investigation revealed that 63, 418,990kg of second-hand clothes from the UK were sent to be sold in Ghana in 2019. Some manufacturers of these clothes use hazardous materials like formaldehyde, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer has described as carcinogenic. When waste tyres are shipped to developing countries like India and Malaysia, as these tyres are burnt, toxic chemicals and gases are released into the atmosphere, which can cause considerable damages.
Third, there are loopholes within the Basle Convention, which can be exploited. The Convention allows the shipment of hazardous materials if the exporting party declares the exact nature of the waste and if the prior informed consent of the importer is obtained. Documentations could be altered to bypass this process by describing the material for repair purposes. This approach has often been used for scraping ships and disposal of electronic waste. Illegal and false documentation, corruption and mislabeling could circumvent the spirit of the Basel Convention. Furthermore, the lack of resources and ineffective monitoring structure might allow hazardous material to be smuggled into the Global South.
Fourth, countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium and Italy ratified the Ban Amendment in 1997, 2002, 2003 and 2009 respectively, however, despite the ratifications, these countries are currently some of the largest exporters of waste to developing countries.
Finally, as long as the insatiable consumption habits and accumulation of waste continue to persist in the Global North, it is will continue to jeopardise Basel Convention's ability to put an end to the one-way traffic of hazardous trash from the west to the rest of the world.
About The Author
Ahmed Olayinka Sule is a CFA Charterholder, photojournalist and social critic. He is an Alumnus of the University of Arts, London; where he obtained a Certificate in Photojournalism. He has worked on various photojournalism projects including Obama: The Impact, Jesus Christ: The Impact, The Williams Sisters etc. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and via Twitter @Alatenumo
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