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Editorial: Those Who Make a Mess Should Have to Clean it Up

Asahi News - January 13, 2000

Tons of waste shipped to the Philippines under the ruse that it was ``recyclable waste'' has been returned to Japan. The consignment included such medical waste as used hypodermic syringes and disposable diapers for adults, and scrap plastic. Content of the shipment was disclosed after it stood unclaimed at the destination port.

The Philippine people are justifiably angry at the subterfuge. Was the waste properly checked? A thorough investigation should be conducted to determine what can be done to prevent recurrences. Waste export is regulated by the Basel Convention and supporting domestic laws. The convention was established in 1992 after harmful waste from Western Europe was transported to countries in Africa and Eastern Europe on ships that meandered all over the place in search of dumping grounds. The convention prohibits transit of hazardous waste across national borders as a matter of principle and calls for its disposal within the country of origin.

Exporters of medical waste must seek permission from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. The ministry notifies the destination country and obtains approval through the Environment Agency. If the description of content is falsified, as in the Philippine case, it is difficult to detect the fraud solely by the documentation. Checking the waste at customs is also difficult because of a shortage of inspection personnel.

The only alternative is an outright ban on export of hazardous waste. The convention was modified in 1995 to prohibit developed countries from shipping any hazardous waste to developing countries. Only about a dozen of more than 130 countries that were signatories to the Basel Convention have ratified the revisions, however, and enforcement of the changes is nowhere in sight. Japan should ratify soon, if only to regain self-respect.

Barring such shipments abroad will not, however, solve the basic problem. Illegal dumping is a long-established practice in this country; this time, the dumpsite just happened to be another country. It was simply an extension of a domestic problem.

Unlike the household garbage disposed of by local governments, the responsibility for disposing of industrial waste rests with those who generate the waste. In fact, however, those who do generate the waste do nothing after contracting out the disposal.

Proper handling of medical waste is especially difficult. Since it can contain infectious materials, disposal is said to be 10 times more costly than other industrial refuse.

Noboru Watanabe, director of Iryo Haikibutsu Kenkyujo (medical waste institute), a private-sector research agency, has long observed that orders for waste disposal are often accepted at below-normal cost and the waste is dumped without proper handling. Waste disposal contractors compete for low fees; those who award the bids ignore illegal dumping because it is cheap. Because of such practices, though, the Philippine waste shipment now must be taken care of at the expense of Japanese taxpayers because the waste handling company is bankrupt.

The only possible alternative to this situation is to require that those who generate waste see that it is properly disposed of. That would oblige the waste makers to choose waste handlers who will do the job right.

Many other improvements are needed. One is to impose strict control on preparation of manifests that describe the content of waste shipments and the destination, in documentation that accompanies waste turned over to a disposal contractor. Such manifests should be closely examined. When a problem arises, the source of the waste should be required to assume full responsibility, including responsibility for the cost of proper disposal.

Kazuhiro Ueta, professor of environmental economics at Kyoto University, proposes a system in which the originator of the waste must make a deposit that is returned when the waste is properly disposed of, or forfeited when it is illegally dumped.

In any event, effective steps must be taken to ensure that such an embarrassment does not recur.

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