By December, 1989, George Kouros, a Chicago businessman, hoped to have
15 to 20 ships bound for Brazil, Chile, and maybe an African country or
two, each carrying thousands of tons of garbage from the East coast of
Although he had no experience in the waste business, Mr. Kouros knew an
opportunity when he saw one, and he figured he'd take in $150 million
in revenues his first year, so he spent 1989 lining up ships and waste
contracts. But by the time he got all his ducks in order, he found that
much of the world had closed its doors to waste traders.
After roughly five years of skyrocketing growth in the international
trade in wastes, over 80 countries slammed their doors shut on the
waste traders in 1989. As we will see below, President George Bush and
few of his friends in Congress are now doing their best to crowbar
those doors back open, but for now many remain shut.
In 1989, 68 less-industrialized countries from Africa, the Caribbean,
and the Pacific (together known as the ACP countries) joined with
officials from the European Economic Community (EEC) in a treaty
prohibiting the international trade in wastes. The agreement, known
as the Lom, IV Convention, bans all shipment of hazardous or
radioactive wastes from EEC countries to ACP countries. In addition,
the ACP countries agreed not to import any wastes from non-EEC
The Lom, Convention is the first international treaty to ban the trade
in radioactive wastes, and the first commitment by EEC countries to ban
Another key event of 1989 was the signing of the Basel Convention on
hazardous waste by representatives of 23 nations on March 22.3 The
Basel Convention definitely did not ban the international shipment of
waste; instead it merely required that waste exporters must receive
written consent from the receiving country. Officials from many Latin
American, Asian, Pacific and Middle Eastern nations refused to sign the
Basel Convention because they said it merely legalized and legitimized
the international trade in wastes, instead of banning such trade. Many
countries insisted on nothing less than a total ban on waste imports
and exports. "Industrialized countries had the power to stop waste
exports to the Third World; instead they opted to institutionalize
them," says Jim Puckett, Greenpeace's European waste trade coordinator.
Most EEC countries, and the U.S. already had laws on the books
requiring waste exporters to receive permission from the recipient
country, so Basel did not represent much that was new. Basel did,
however, contain a strict, broad, and comprehensive definition of what
is a hazardous waste. Third-world countries and environmental groups
argued that the Basel Convention did little more than legalize and
legitimize toxic terrorism, but heavily industrialized nations
recognized the Basel waste definition as a threat to business-as-usual.
Africa's Response to Basel
January 29, 1991, African nations reacted to the weak Basel Convention
by passing a strong, progressive waste import agreement that promises
to close most of the African continent to waste traders. Convened
under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which
includes every African nation except South Africa and Morocco, the
treaty is called the "Bamako Convention on the Ban of the Import into
Africa and the Control of Transboundary Movement and Management of
Hazardous Wastes Within Africa," named for Bamako in Mali, where the
OAU delegates met to hammer out the details.
The "Bamako Convention," as it is known, is by far the strongest
control measure on wastes ever passed. It contains the following
** Bans the import of hazardous waste, including radioactive waste, and
declares such import a "criminal act;"
** Bans the import of hazardous substances that have been banned,
canceled or refused registration, or have been voluntarily withdrawn in
the country of manufacture for human health or environmental reasons;
** Bans ocean dumping and ocean incineration as well as seabed and sub-
seabed disposal of wastes;
** Imposes strict, unlimited, joint and several liability on hazardous
waste generators; this means that a waste generator retains
responsibility and legal liability for a generated waste. Anyone hurt
by the waste need not prove that the generator of the waste was
negligent. If several waste generators mix their wastes together (as in
a dump), each one is individually liable for all damages caused by the
** Commits African nations to "strive to adopt and implement the
preventive, precautionary approach to pollution problems which entails,
[among other things,] preventing the release of substances which may
cause harm to humans or the environment without waiting for scientific
proof regarding such harm. The Parties shall co-operate with each other
in taking the appropriate measures to implement the precautionary
principle to pollution prevention through the application of clean
production methods, rather than the pursuit of a permissible emissions
approach based on assimilative capacity assumptions."
This last provision needs an explanation because it is such a simple
description of a path-breaking new approach to chemical regulation. The
Precautionary Principle assumes chemicals are dangerous until proven
safe. Present U.S. policy has it the other way around, which guarantees
that we will have massive damage and millions of victims poisoned
before chemicals are brought under control or are banned. The Bamako
Convention is the first legal document to embody the Precautionary
Principle, setting the stage for others to do the same. It foretells a
revolution in the control of toxics.
The U.S. Response to Basel
Meanwhile at the other end of the spectrum from Bamako, President
George Bush is promoting legislation that will cut the heart out of
even the bland and tepid Basel Convention. The one thing that Basel did
right was include a comprehensive definition of hazardous substances.
But Basel contains a provision that says when the convention is finally
ratified, it will not overrule any waste-trade agreements then in
existence, even if they are weaker than the Basel provisions.
January 31, 1991 the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development--an organization of 19 highly-developed countries,
including the U.S.) adopted "Decision-Recommendation of the Council on
the Reduction of Trans-frontier Movements of Wastes." The OECD Decision
classifies wastes into three categories--red, amber, and green. Green-
class and amber-class wastes will be regulated less strictly than the
Basel convention requires, or will be entirely exempt from all
regulation. The OECD Decision is clearly intended to undercut the Basel
The Bush Administration is seeking to turn the OECD Decision into
reality. Bush has proposed weak, dangerous legislation in the U.S.
Congress (H.R. 2398 and Senate bill 1082).
Competing legislation, introduced by Representative Edolphus ("Ed")
Towns--H.R. 2580--would simply ban U.S. export (and import) of all
dangerous wastes. This bill deserves strong support.
 Bill Lambrecht, "Nations Think Twice on Trading in Trash," ST.
LOUIS POST-DISPATCH December 31, 1989, pg. 1A.
 The Lom, IV Convention is described in Jim Vallette and Heather
Spalding, editors, THE INTERNATIONAL TRADE IN WASTES; A GREENPEACE
INVENTORY. Fifth Edition. (Washington, DC: 1990), pgs. 11-12. This 380-
page, fully-indexed fifth edition of the INVENTORY is available in
English, French, German or Spanish from Greenpeace, 1436 U St., NW,
Washington, DC 20009. A steal at $20.
 United Nations Environment Programme, BASEL CONVENTION ON THE
CONTROL OF TRANSBOUNDARY MOVEMENTS OF HAZARDOUS WASTES AND THEIR
DISPOSAL FINAL ACT (Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environment
Programme, 1989). Available for costs of photocopying ($10.00) from:
Waste Trade Campaign, Greenpeace Action, 1436 U St., NW, Washington, DC
 Organization of African Unity, BAMAKO CONVENTION ON THE BAN OF THE
IMPORT INTO AFRICA AND THE CONTROL OF TRANSBOUNDARY MOVEMENT AND
MANAGEMENT OF HAZARDOUS WASTES WITHIN AFRICA (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia:
Organization of African Unity, 1991). Available for costs of
photocopying ($5.00) from Greenpeace at the address given above.
 All pending U.S. legislation is described in Greenpeace Waste Trade
Project, "Waste Trade Briefing for Co-Sponsors of The Waste Export and
Import Prohibition Act [H.R. 2580]." Available for $2.00 from Ann
Leonard, Greenpeace, at the address above.
Descriptor terms: international waste trade; george kouros; africa;
caribbean; pacific; european economic community; lome iv convention;
radioactive waste; hazardous waste; basel convention; bans; imports;
exports; developing countries; industrialized countries; organization
of african unity; bamako convention; hazardous materials; ocean
dumping; ocean incineration; waste treatment technologies; waste
disposal technologies; precautionary principle; oecd; greenpeace;