Delegates fail to agree on banning toxic waste exports at UN conference
by The Associated Press, International Herald Tribune (France)
27 June 2008 (Bali, Indonesia) – Delegates at a U.N. conference decided against banning toxic waste exports, instead encouraging countries Friday to take their own action to address the steady stream of dangerous chemicals and old electronics that litter the landfills of poor nations.
Support for the ban during the weeklong meeting on the Basel Convention was driven by African countries, who argued it was the best way to protect their citizens, and by the European Union, which already prohibits toxic exports.
But the proposal ran into stiff opposition from the United States, Japan, Canada and India over concerns it would stifle recycling industries in the developed world that are booming amid the rising price of metals.
The delegates instead emerged from talks Friday with a number of other measures, including industry-supported guidelines for disposing of cell phones and an agreement to start similar discussions for old computer equipment.
"It's very sad, very sad," said Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, adding that his group's main goal of the convention was to get nations to manage their own waste at home instead of sending it overseas.
It's unclear just how many tons of toxic waste that companies, mostly in rich nations, pay to send to other countries for disposal. But just about everyone at the Bali convention agreed that the trade in toxic chemicals is big, that eventual disposal of the waste is often inadequate — and that the business is growing.
The proposed ban was the boldest attempt at the conference to strengthen the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The 1989 pact allows its 170 members to ban imports and requires exporters to gain consent before sending toxic materials abroad.
Critics argue that insufficient funds, widespread corruption and the absence of the United States as a participant have undermined the convention, leaving millions of poor people exposed to heavy metals, PCBs and other toxins. Many say an outright ban of exporting toxic waste is the only solution.
However, industry representatives said Friday that the new voluntary measures adopted at the conference could lead to the creation of certified recycling facilities, which would be especially significant in developing countries, where old electronics pollute landfills or are burned in open pits.
The hope, too, is that many of the countries would use the new guidelines to create their own recycling laws that would address the estimated 20 million to 50 million tons of used electronics goods sent abroad.
Rick Goss of the Information Technology Industry Council, which includes most major computer and printer manufacturers, said the computer guidelines would offer a universal framework that would give the industry confidence its products were being recycled responsibly.
"Electronics do need to be managed properly," Goss said. "We want to make sure that we don't have the human health and environmental impacts that have been documented in certain countries when electronics aren't being properly managed."
The issue of toxic exports took center stage in 2006 when hundreds of tons of waste were dumped around the Ivory Coast's main city of Abidjan, killing at least 10 people and sickening tens of thousands more. The waste came from a tanker chartered by the multibillion-dollar Dutch commodities trading company Trafigura Beheer BV, which had contracted with a local company to dispose of the waste.
Trafigura has agreed to pay €152 million (US$236 million) to the Ivorian government, but it has argued that waste discharged was not toxic and that the spill was not responsible for the deaths or injuries.
For much of the week in Bali, the debate revolved around the export ban. But as a deadlock intensified, Indonesia put forth a compromise, which it said would allow parties to revisit the issue in the future. Among other things, the statement encourages nations to pass laws, as the EU did, that would ban toxic exports or short of that, boost enforcement to monitor and detect illegal waste.
"In light of the difficulties ratifying the ban, the parties have agreed to look at a way of resolving this impasse," Achim Steiner, executive director for the U.N. Environment Program, said of the statement.
"That is a very positive signal," he said.
But Dr. O.O. Dada, a member of the Nigerian delegation, said he was "shocked" and "surprised" the convention did not endorse a ban. He said African nations will likely now look toward regional pacts to regulate toxic waste imports.
"We have to fall back on a plan to protect ourselves," he said.
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