Basel Convention and Effective Disposal of Hazardous Wastes

Rajbir Singh, Intern at SpeakingThreads

Disposal of toxic and hazardous wastes is a very serious environmental problem that the world is struggling to deal with. Toxic wastes and pollutants generated on account of extensive industrial and commercial activities, especially in the developed countries of the world, pose a grave threat to the environment and endanger human, animal and plant life. The problem is not new; if anything, countries were so engrossed in their quest for industrial prowess and economic supremacy, that little attention was paid to the impact of this industrial rat race on the environment.

barrel-158714_1280Photo: PixaBay

The concern, consciousness and awareness of the impact of industrial growth on the environment were however, gradually increasing thereby resulting in a more stringent set of environmental regulations.  In the late 1980s, a tightening of the environmental regulations in the industrialized countries led to a dramatic rise in the cost of hazardous waste disposal. Developed countries began looking for cheaper and more cost effective means to dispose off their hazardous wastes. An ‘effective’ method of waste disposal, much more viable than the expensive domestic disposal, was to ‘ship’ the hazardous waste to developing countries (in Asia and Eastern Europe). Thus, the developed countries gradually began to ‘dump’ all their hazardous wastes on the developing countries. This activity, however, came under severe criticism and the international outrage eventually led to the drafting and the adoption of the Basel Convention. The Convention, adopted in 1989, came into force in 1992.

The Basel Convention is a global agreement, ratified by several member countries and the European Union, for addressing the problems and challenges posed by hazardous wastes. The Convention seeks to achieve the following key objectives:-

  • To minimize the generation of hazardous wastes in terms of quantity and hazardousness;
  • To dispose of them as close to the source of generation as possible;
  • To reduce the movement of hazardous wastes.

The first decade of the Convention (1989-1999) witnessed significant emphasis being laid on controlling the ‘transboundary’ movement of hazardous wastes, that is, movement of hazardous wastes across international frontiers. Hazardous wastes pose a grave threat to human and environmental health and, one of the guiding principles of the Basel Convention is that, to minimize the threat hazardous wastes should be dealt with as close to where they are produced as possible. Thus, under the convention, transboundary movement of hazardous wastes can take place only upon prior notification by the State of export to the competent authority of the State of import or transit. Shipments containing hazardous wastes must be accompanied by a ‘movement document’ from the point of dispatch to the point of disposal. The broad purpose of having such rules in place is to prevent hazardous materials from being dumped on countries without their knowledge.

The Basel Convention emphasizes on the importance of preventing, detecting and acting against illegal transboundary movements of hazardous wastes (‘illegal traffic’). Transboundary movement of hazardous wastes without the consent of the state concerned, or through consent obtained by misrepresentation or fraud, or without notification to all states concerned is recognized by the convention as ‘Illegal Traffic’. The Convention considers illegal traffic in hazardous wastes a crime and to prevent the same, it stresses on the introduction by each party of national/domestic legislations to prevent and punish illegal traffic. Parties are also required to co-operate to achieve the prevention of illegal traffic. The Secretariat, in Geneva, Switzerland, facilitates the implementation of the Convention and related agreements. Although, it is not mandated to take a unilateral decision to intervene when a case of alleged illegal traffic is brought to its attention, its functions {under Art. 16 (1)(i)} include assisting the parties in identification of cases of illegal traffic and circulation of relevant information to the parties concerned.

The Convention also underscores the importance of ‘Environmentally Sound Management’ or ESM. ESM means taking all practical steps to minimize the generation of hazardous wastes and strictly controlling its storage, transport, treatment, reuse, recycling, recovery and final disposal, the purpose of which is to protect human health and the environment.

It is however, very unfortunate and a matter of great concern that notwithstanding the provisions of the Basel Convention, illegal traffic of hazardous waste takes place at alarming regularity in almost all corners of the world. Developing countries and countries, which have their economies in transition, are frequently used by the developed countries to dump their hazardous industrial wastes. India has become one of the more preferred dumping grounds for the developed countries. Brain-damaging mercury and toxic electronic and plastic wastes from the United States; cancer-causing asbestos from Canada; defective steel and tin plates from the European Union, Australia and the U.S.; scrap of metals such as cadmium, chromium, cobalt from Germany, Denmark are all dumped on India. Often, these toxic, ignitable, corrosive and reactive substances are dumped by the developed countries on India using a ‘loophole’ in the Basel Convention-“exporting for recycling or recovery purposes”.

Toxic dumping happens in three ways: direct dumping, export of “dirty” products and export of obsolete waste technology. Instead of investing millions of dollars in research and development for devising environment friendly techniques for ‘hazardous waste’ disposal, developed countries prefer to ‘dump’ such wastes on developing countries like India. The fact that the Unites States of America is yet to ratify the Convention is ample testimony to this mindset of the developed countries.

If these substances (wastes) pose such a grave threat to human health and environment, a fact which even the developing countries realize, then why do such countries allow the import of such substances?

Mercury has over 3000 uses. It is also used in manufacturing electrical apparatus such as mercury vapour lamps, electrical switches, fluorescent lamps and so on. Another substance dumped on India is asbestos, a carcinogenic that is banned in all developed countries In India, asbestos is used mainly in the manufacture of pipes used in irrigation and drainage systems. The finished product may not be harmful, but there is enough scientific evidence to show that it poses a health hazard to those exposed to its fibre.  Export of electronic waste, or e-waste, is emerging as another major problem. E-waste is the collective name for discarded electronic devices such as monitors, printers, keyboards, central processing units, typewriters, PVC wires, mobile phones and telephones. The extensive use of such products and their demand in India ends up boosting their exports to the country.

India finds itself in a catch 22 situation. It cannot, on the one hand, altogether ban the import of hazardous materials like mercury, asbestos etc., owing to the extensive use of such substances in many sectors and industries; atleast not till such time it is able to find substitutes that are economically more viable and environmentally more suitable. not till such time it is able to find substitutes that are economically more viable and environmentally more suitable.  At the same time, it can also not afford to remain oblivious to the serious environmental and health hazards posed by such substances and allow itself to become a dumping ground for all the toxin and poison in the world. It is imperative that India leapfrogs to cleaner substitutes because it cannot afford to become the world’s dump yard for toxic substances. It must develop technologies which enable it to dispense with the need to use the ‘hazardous’ and ‘toxic’ wastes, dumped on it by the developed countries.

Much needs to be done at the international level as well. Many companies have already demonstrated that “cleaner production” methods which eliminate or reduce hazardous outputs can be both economically and environmentally efficient. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) must work to identify and disseminate such practices, and the international community must exert pressure to ensure that these practices are followed by the developed countries.  We need to place more emphasis on creating partnerships with industry and research institutions to create innovative approaches to ESM. One of the most critical aspects of ESM is lowering demand for products and services that result in hazardous by-products. Consumers also need to educate themselves as to the methods used in production processes and think about what they buy every day.

The Basel Convention must be observed, in both letter and spirit, by all the signatories. Human life is precious, be it anywhere in the world, and therefore global efforts need to be made for its preservation and protection.