Exposing the Recycling Hoax: Bharat Zinc and the Politics of the International Waste Trade
by Ann Leonard and Jan Rispens, Multinational Monitor
JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1996 · VOLUME 17 · NUMBERS 1 AND 2,
BHOPAL, INDIA -- Until recently, the Indian government was a strong opponent of the international waste trade and an ardent supporter of the call for the United Nations' Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and Their Disposal to be amended to ban toxic waste exports from the world's richest countries to less industrialized ones. At the First Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention in Uruguay in November 1992, A. Bhattacharja, head of the Indian delegation, pleaded with industrialized countries to stop exporting hazardous waste. "You industrial countries have been asking us to do many things for the global good -- to stop cutting down our forests, to stop using your CFCs. Now we are asking you to do something for the global good: keep your own waste."
At the Second Basel Convention Conference of Parties, in March 1994, with India still holding firm, the countries advocating a waste trade ban successfully convinced all parties to the Convention to agree to a ban on all hazardous waste exports from the world's most industrialized countries (members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) to non-industrialized countries. That ban was scheduled to begin immediately for disposal and on January 1, 1998 for wastes destined for recycling facilities overseas.
Then, in 1995, everything seemed to change suddenly. In the months leading up to the Third Basel Conference of Parties in September 1995, opponents of the ban, including industrialized governments and waste trading industries, lobbied Third World governments to back out of the ban at the upcoming meeting. Officials at the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) report that representatives of both the United States and Australia urged them in personal meetings to drop their support for the ban.
These lobby efforts met with success. Just weeks before the Third Conference of Parties, the Indian government announced it was reconsidering the Basel Ban and might continue to allow hazardous waste imports for recycling into India. The government asserted India could handle imported hazardous waste, especially metal-containing wastes, safely. Kamal Nath, then India's environment minister, explained, "We are against environmentally unfriendly recycling. We are not against the movement of waste, provided the recipient has adequate equipment, facility and the proper process to deal with it."
Asked in the wake of this statement for an example of a factory that imports and recycles hazardous waste in an environmentally sound manner, MOEF officials pointed to the Bhopal-based Bharat Zinc Ltd. as a model operation.
Bharat Zinc's factory, located just outside of Bhopal, imports and processes hazardous metal waste to reclaim zinc. The waste imports come mainly from Germany and the Netherlands, but also from other European countries and the United States, according to the company. An MOEF official who asked not to be identified promised that the waste imported by Bharat Zinc contained an average of 90 percent zinc and was recycled safely, and that none of the residual toxic waste was land disposed.
A visit to Bharat Zinc
Actual practices at Bharat Zinc -- as witnessed during visits we made in July and September 1995 -- do not lend much support to the MOEF official's claims.
After the waste arrives at Bharat Zinc and is unloaded, the factory uses an electrolytic process to extract the zinc from the imported waste. Sulfuric acid is combined with the zinc, resulting in zinc sulfate. Zinc is then extracted from the solution using electrolysis. No other metals are recovered in this process.
In each room of the factory, workers handle the hazardous waste without gloves or real masks, although some workers tie scraps of cloth around their faces to attempt to limit inhalation of the waste dust. Apparently aware of the dangers, the plant manager provided himself and one of us with more sophisticated masks during a factory tour. Outside, men and women workers without protective clothing, and often wearing only shorts and a t-shirt, carried baskets of the residual waste on their heads and walked through the open dumping area.
After the waste is processed, the residual waste is piled in the backyard of the factory, where it is either stored in old drums or dumped in large, open, uncontrolled and flooded pits.
M.M. Gupta, executive director of Bharat Zinc, insists the plant is environmentally sound. He says he is not concerned about the problem of contamination by lead and other impurities that the factory cannot reclaim from the imported waste. Gupta admits the lead cannot be recycled, but argues that the quantity in the waste at Bharat Zinc is insufficient to cause harm. "In the zinc ash, the lead is in very, very small quantities," he says. "That's why we are trying to convince the Basel Convention that the zinc ash is an old traditional raw material for making zinc; it is not hazardous waste because the lead contents are very, very small. It is 0.03 percent in one tonne, which is just nothing."
However, shipping documents from Germany, where the waste originated, and which Gupta is sure to have seen, clearly state that the lead percentages are at least 100 times higher. And samples of imported waste collected at Bharat Zinc and analyzed by the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom reveal zinc concentrations between 60 and 83 percent, up to 4 percent lead, 8 percent aluminum, 3 percent copper and lower concentrations of nickel and manganese. A sample of the residual waste dumped after processing was found to still contain 20 percent zinc, 2 percent lead, 6 percent iron, 8 percent manganese and 1.5 percent aluminum.
"Since the lead is not recycled at all, all of it ends up in the immediate environment, finding its way into the lungs of workers, leaches into groundwater or runs off into surface water," says Jim Puckett, director of Greenpeace's Toxic Campaign.
"Bharat Zinc is an example of exactly why the Basel Waste Trade Ban must not be overturned," Puckett adds. "A handful of industrialized countries want to continue exporting hazardous wastes for recycling, claiming that it can be done safely. 'Recycling' hazardous waste sounds good for the environment but in reality causes environmental disasters like at Bharat Zinc." The only way to prevent these disasters "is to force the industrialized countries to solve their waste problems at home instead of exporting them overseas."
Environmental and health effects
The main environmental threats from Bharat Zinc's operations are the residual wastes left over after the zinc recovery. With the actual zinc concentrations in the incoming waste as low as 60 percent, the residuals create large amounts of toxic waste which the company simply dumps behind the factory.
Gupta states that Bharat Zinc imports and processes a total of 15,000 tonnes of waste per year. Samples of incoming waste that we collected contained over 3 percent lead. At this rate, each year more than 450 tonnes of lead from imported waste will pollute the air, water and soil around the factory.
Most worrisome are the health effects for workers at Bharat Zinc. In a filmed interview, Gupta stated, "Worker safety is our first concern. ... In fact [Bharat Zinc's operations are] not exactly that hazardous to harm human health and all. [E]ven [so] the workers are using the gloves, gumboots and masks, so worker safety is 100 percent."
But a worker at the factory says that Bharat Zinc workers have not been warned of any hazards. "They don't say anything. They just give us a cloth for our mouths and a hat, but they tell us nothing."
Anjela Stephenson, an Exeter University research scientist who analyzed the waste samples we collected, explains what the workers should know. "The greatest danger to the workers is the inhalation of the dust that comes from the waste that is stockpiled outside of the factory, and also skin contact with this waste," she says. Because the workers are not offered face masks or other protective garments, "if they are in the vicinity of these wastes, they are likely to be exposed to quite high airborne levels of heavy metals," she says. "Lead particularly warrants concern because it is such a toxic and pervasive environmental contaminant, causing metabolic, neurological, neuropsychological disorders after both chronic and acute exposure."
Concern about dioxin
Because the waste imported by Bharat Zinc contains approximately 4 percent chlorine, there is a possibility that dioxin is formed in the thermal processing of the waste at the company's factory.
"Given the presence of organic materials and chloride under high temperature, there is a high probability that polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (often referred to as 'dioxins') will be generated in the process," says Ruth Stringer, a scientist who analyzed waste samples from Bharat Zinc at the Earth Resources Center laboratory at Exeter University in the United Kingdom. Moreover, she adds, "Samples of imported waste analyzed by this laboratory also exhibited copper concentrations in the range of parts per million to parts per thousand. Copper is a well-known catalyst of dioxin formation during the roasting operation."
The creation of dioxin would be a matter of major concern, Stringer says. "The dioxins are extremely stable and capable of persisting for many years in the environment. Generation of very small amounts would therefore be of concern with regard to exposure of the workers at the facility and the potential for the contamination of the local environment."
Although dioxin formation is associated with the presence of chlorine in the waste and is not related to separate concerns about lead, Bharat Zinc's fax to Grillo states that "Bharat Zinc has never used lead battery or imported them, so there is no possibility of formation of dioxin in our production cycle." Again in its September 21 statement, Bharat Zinc claims, "In our entire process system, there is no dioxin gas generated in our process."
In defense of Bharat Zinc, the Indian Non-Ferrous Metals Manufacturers' Association (INFMMA) released a "Rejoinder to Greenpeace," which demonstrated the same misunderstanding about any relationship between dioxin and lead but also showed an amazing ignorance about dioxin itself. INFMMA stated that "Green Peace [sic] wants to frighten people by claiming that this lead contains dioxine [sic] which is injurious to health. Any doctor will tell you that dioxine, like vitamins, is essential for human health and injurious only when taken in excess."
Bharat Zinc's response
On September 7, 1995, Greenpeace held a press conference in New Delhi to release our findings and warn that the Basel Waste Trade Ban was coming under attack at the upcoming Basel Conference of Parties. Greenpeace presented scientific papers from the sampling at the factory and exhibited photographs and video film of the inside and outside of the Bharat Zinc factory and of an interview with Gupta explaining his view of the factory's operations.
After one of the exporters to Bharat Zinc, the German company Wilhelm Grillo, questioned Bharat Zinc about Greenpeace's report, Bharat Zinc sent a fax to Grillo denying Greenpeace's findings. The fax, dated September 11, 1995, stated that "We at Bharat Zinc are shocked by such statements released by [Greenpeace] without even visiting Bharat Zinc Ltd. site or even knowing any facts or without collecting any samples or giving any opportunity to take our version."
The fax also denied any environmental harm from the imported waste. "No solid waste is generated during the remelting," the fax claims, although it then contradicts itself by stating that the company has "prepared a secured landfill which has been granted permission for disposal of solid waste generated in the process. This solid waste is transferred to the landfill periodically."
On September 21, Bharat Zinc issued a statement for circulation at the Third Basel Conference of Parties, which was then in progress in Geneva and where Bharat Zinc's operations had become a focal point in the discussion of the merits of a ban on waste exports for recycling. In this statement, the company again denied that any waste is left over after processing at its facilities. "We would like to state that we are a proper recycling unit with all modern technology and facilities and are not dumping any residues/scraps/ash at our site and are rather converting it into a virgin metal in a scientific manner." The statement calls on parties to the Basel Convention to allow the international waste trade to continue between industrialized and non-industrialized countries.
Indian activists take action, win victory
On September 18, Supreme Court Advocate Sanjay Parikh filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India against both the Indian government and Bharat Zinc for violating the Constitution by importing hazardous waste. Filed on behalf of Dr. Vandana Shiva, director of the Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science Technology and Natural Resource Policy and a well-known environmental activist, the petition "seeks to challenge the illegal and unconstitutional decision of the Ministry of Environment and Forests permitting import of toxic wastes in India under the cover of recycling knowing fully that the real purpose of such export by developed countries is to make India a dumping ground for toxic wastes."
The petition argues that the import of hazardous waste to Bharat Zinc violates provisions of the Indian Environmental (Protection) Act of 1986, other environmental laws, and the articles of the Indian Constitution that guarantee fundamental rights, impose a duty on the state to raise the standard of living and to improve public health and require the State to "endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country."
The petition asks the Supreme Court to direct the Indian government to ban all imports of hazardous waste; to direct amendment of rules in conformity with the Basel Convention and relevant provisions of the constitution; and to declare that, without adequate protection to the workers and public and without any provision for sound environmental management of hazardous wastes, the national law on hazardous waste management is violative of fundamental rights and, therefore, unconstitutional.
On September 19, the day after the Supreme Court petition was filed, a new environment minister, Rajesh Pilot, assumed charge of the MOEF. Alarmed by reports that the Indian delegation at the Basel Conference of Parties was voicing opposition to the Basel Ban, Indian organizations working against waste trade, such as the Delhi-based Public Interest Research Group and Delhi-based SRISHTI, tried to arrange meetings with the new minister. Unable to obtain an appointment, on September 22, more than a dozen activists holding placards reading "Support the Basel Ban" and "India needs clean jobs -- not toxic jobs" held a protest outside of the Environment Ministry until the minister would meet with them. After an hour, Pilot did agree to meet with the activists, and they reported that he listened openly to their views.
The activists delivered a letter to Pilot, signed by many Indian environmental organizations, writers and activists, calling on Pilot to support the Basel Ban. "All of us are cognizant of the documented fact that recycling facilities in this country operate with no consideration whatsoever for the health and safety of their workers and nearby communities; nor for environmental and pollution laws of the country," the letter stated. "India has a proud record of consistently having taken a position against waste trade in international fora. We strongly urge you to stop any regression from this politically laudable stance and not allow India to become a dumping site for the industrialized world's waste."
The next day, the Indian delegation finally ceased opposing the Basel waste trade ban, and the parties to the Basel Convention adopted the ban by consensus, securing it as international law.
Bharat Zinc Tries to Silence Opposition
On September 30, Bharat Zinc's lawyer, Krishna Mohan Shukla, sent a letter to Essential Information, publisher of Multinational Monitor. This letter states that through my participation in the Bharat Zinc investigation, I had damaged the reputation of Bharat Zinc by "making wilfully false statements and concocted stories to the print media, exhibiting manipulated video films in public places, etc." The letter threatens to sue me unless I made a written apology to Bharat Zinc or paid compensation of ten crores Indian rupees (more then US$3 million) within 30 days. I did not respond, and Bharat Zinc has not taken subsequent action. -- A.L.
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