Waste Management and Globalization
Economic growth has been blessed by a growing demand for manufactured consumer products. Rising consumption of many basic goods and unnecessary luxury goods contributes to an ever-expanding quantity of waste material. The production of waste represents a main environmental problem today.
Unscrupulous waste trade became a serious concern in the 1980s due to the increasing amount of production of hazardous waste, the inadequacy of existing waste processing, and the enforcement of stricter regulations in the developed world due to growing environmental awareness. Managing waste became expensive, especially for some poorer countries.
In an increasingly globalized world, waste is being shaped into a tradable commodity that can bring significant opportunities to those willing to accept garbage as an item with intrinsic value. The low cost of waste processing has created a lucrative industry. Combined with lowered transportation costs, many countries are finding that it makes sense to export waste to those countries willing to import the refuse for processing.
Globalization defines the problem of worldwide waste management. The main paradox is that the notion and exercise of national sovereignty hinders an effective response to the problem of waste management by supra-national efforts.
As a consequence, the existing inequalities between industrialized and less-industrialized nations greatly influence the global flow of toxic wastes, which are dumped mainly in less developed countries.
Global inequalities between the "North" and the "South" have a direct impact in the way waste is managed. The bargaining position of countries is usually correlated to their membership with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
OECD members have strong environmental regulation, enforcement infrastructure, technical skills for management of toxic waste, facilities for processing hazardous waste, and government accountability for safety/health of citizens. All of these conditions prevents them from dumping waste within their boundaries.
By contrast, non-OECD members have weak environmental legislation, few resources for enforcement, inadequate technical capacity for safe handling of toxic waste, general absence of facilities for hazardous waste management, and governments less responsive to safety/health requirements of citizenry.
As a consequence, the tree major factors in North-South flow are price differentials due to asymmetry in regulatory frameworks, unequal regulatory frameworks and enforcement mechanisms, and public pressure in industrialized countries.
Historical Efforts towards Waste Management
The Basel Convention, adopted in 1989, and enforced in 1992, represented a response to international scandals in waste trafficking in late 1980s. It regulated the trans-boundary movements of hazardous and other wastes and obliged its Parties to ensure that such wastes are managed and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. This convention failed to ban hazardous waste exports to any location other than Antarctica. The Basel Ban addressed the shortcomings of Basel Convention, by banning all forms of hazardous waste exports from the 29 wealthiest most industrialized countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to all non-OECD countries.
Problems of the Basel Convention
- Not all countries are parties to the Convention or its Amendments - notably the U.S. For instance, only 63 countries have ratified the Ban.
- Its regulation is poorly enforced
- Because of its limited scope, it does not cover trade in wastes between developing countries or between industrialized countries
- The Parties to the Convention lack common definitions and classifications as regards international standards for waste management.
- There is not only poor reporting on legal transactions from parties to the convention, but also non-existent reporting on illegal transfers of toxic waste.
- The Basel Convention’s data is useless for developing a fuller understanding of the problem of illegal movements of waste.
Globalized toxic waste
This phenomenon shows an emergence of mechanisms to skirt global efforts towards waste management.
The norms promoted by the Basel Convention and other regimes are likely to reduce the scope of the problem, by raising international awareness of it. However, they are unable to eliminate it completely. The main reason for this is that formal trade restrictions drive trans-boundary movement of toxic materials “underground,” making it harder to track.
The evidence points to the following problems:
- The recycling loophole: shipments labeled as materials for “recycling” rather than waste have avoided the convention’s enactment.
- Waste is being transferred to developing nations illegally, or through direct foreign investment rather than trade.
- Companies are locating pollutant-producing manufacturing plants in developing countries where environmental laws remain lax.
All of these problems reflect the global nature of the problem associated to waste management. Environmental concerns are raised and enforced by richer countries which usually have more leverage in the international arena of negotiation, and which usually produce more waste due to their higher levels of industrialization.
See related topics: For a listing with flyovers, see Series:UNEP / GRID-Arendal.
© Douglas Mercado 2007