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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 September 2006, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
The global path of pollution
ANALYSIS
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Toxic waste being poured into a tank

Three people lie dead, a further 1,500 receive medical treatment, and a government falls; Ivory Coast's toxic waste affair has made quite an impact.

The circumstances surrounding the incident, even the nature of the waste itself, are unclear; corruption is alleged.

And while the company which owns the ship from whence the waste came, Trafigura Beheer BV, issued a statement confirming "...that the residue (slops) were a mixture of gasoline, water and caustic washings", news agency reports from Abidjan mention the noxious chemical hydrogen sulphide and organochlorides as components.

What is clear is that the incident has catapulted the issue of waste - and particularly waste from abroad - into the consciousness of West Africa in a spectacular and perhaps unprecedented manner.

But waste is a double-edged sword, particularly for developing countries. Some materials, badly handled, present clear hazards; others can provide economic opportunities.

On a visit to Johannesburg, I climbed a huge waste dump to speak with people beachcombing on top.

Removing tattered handkerchiefs from faces, they told me they were collecting aluminium, netting about five rand - less than one US dollar - for a bag.

It was a living - not a good one, but the best they could find.

Twin tugs

Nowhere illustrates the international aspect of this divide better than India's ship-breaking business.

The Clemenceau.  Image: AFP
The aircraft carrier Clemenceau returned to France after protests
On the west coast, the world's unwanted freighters and liners arrive to be broken, cannibalised and disposed of. It is a significant business and source of local employment.

Yet workers may be paying the price in health. A recent government-commissioned report found that one in six workers at the Alang shipyard carries signs of asbestos poisoning.

Currently up for grabs is a contract to break a French cruise liner, the Blue Lady. Environmental groups protest, an echo of February's activism over the imminent arrival of a French aircraft carrier, an action which eventually saw the giant ship turned back to France.

India, of course, merits the appelation "developing country", unlike many others habitually included given that label which are not in fact developing at all; it can now afford to forego the odd important contract.

As national earnings and living standards rise, environmental awareness typically spreads, and the paths to a living wage broaden.

The concern among western environmental groups is that as India turns ships away, they will end up on more impoverished shores, perhaps in Africa, where regulations will be laxer, scrutiny absent, and the need for employment greater.

Global dustbin

In theory, none of this should be happening. The Basel Convention On The Transboundary Movements Of Hazardous Wastes And Their Disposal and its offshoot treaties are supposed to prevent it.

Western citizens may object to waste processing plants on their own fragrant soil, western corporations may prefer to export garbage rather than charging consumers the full cost of clean disposal; Basel is the theoretical bar stopping poor countries from becoming the world's toxic dustbin.

But parts of the Basel structure remain un-ratified, a decade after their signature, by countries which see an interest in putting their own waste "somewhere else"; environmental groups lambast Australia and the US in particular.

And while ships' cargo is covered by the Convention, the ships themselves are not.

Even with a functioning treaty, protection would be far from guaranteed.

HAZARDOUS WASTE
Computer, BBC
1: Lead in cathode ray tube and solder
2: Arsenic in older cathode ray tubes
5: Antimony trioxide as flame retardant
4: Polybrominated flame retardants in plastic casings, cables and circuit boards
3: Selenium in circuit boards as power supply rectifier
6: Cadmium in circuit boards and semiconductors
7: Chromium in steel as corrosion protection
8: Cobalt in steel for structure and magnetivity
9: Mercury in switches and housing

There is corruption, there are the costs of enforcement, there is a lack of political will, there are opportunities for a fast buck.

Two years ago, making an environmental documentary for BBC World Service, I set up a fake online identity, posing as an unscrupulous European computer businessman who wanted to export old equipment containing toxic materials without the hassle of the Basel bureaucracy.

Negotiations proceeded far enough that two companies, both based in the US but with East Asian operations, were prepared to take containers of computer parts unseen into Hong Kong.

As a party to the Basel Convention, China should not be allowing such materials entry to its ports without the appropriate paperwork. But both companies said they had "ways" of getting material through customs without scrutiny.

At the end of the trail lie Chinese villages where computers are disassembled using techniques unthinkable in the west. The environmental group Basel Action Network filmed circuit boards being processed in woks full of boiling acid.

The impacts on health and the local environment do not bear thinking about; but, for the villagers, it is, for now, a living.

Reducing the burden

In the long run, international agreements such as Basel need copious amounts of capacity and will to succeed.

Much more effective, perhaps, to factor out toxic materials from goods as far as possible, as has happened in the West with asbestos and as is happening, slowly, with computers.

And to raise the standards of developing countries so that effective domestic legislation, enforcement, and civil society watchdogs become standard.

Only then will one person's waste stop being someone else's toxic mealticket, and render incidents like the one we are witnessing in the Ivory Coast unthinkable.

Richard.Black-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


SEE ALSO
'Asbestos risk' for India workers
06 Sep 06 |  South Asia
Surreal times on the SS France
12 Jun 06 |  Europe
PC users 'want greener machines'
26 Jun 06 |  Technology
Mine giant settles pollution case
16 Feb 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Quiz: Do you know your pollution?
10 Dec 04 |  Science/Nature
E-waste rules still being flouted
19 Mar 04 |  Science/Nature

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