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#253 - International Waste Trade -- Part 1; A Flaw In The Grass-Roots Strategy, 02-Oct-1991

For nearly a decade the grass-roots movement against toxics has tried
to stop all new waste disposal projects. The strategy is a simple one,
based on sound science and good public policy:

(1) All waste disposal (landfill, incineration and deep-well injection)
ultimately contaminates the environment. There is no such thing as
"safe" disposal.

(2) So long as cheap disposal remains available, the creators of toxic
wastes (including municipal garbage) have little incentive to create

(3) By stopping new disposal projects, the price of disposal can be
driven up, giving waste creators a real incentive to produce less.

No doubt about it, this strategy is working. The cost of disposal is
now anywhere from $500 to $1000 for a ton of hazardous waste, and
anywhere from $30 to $120 per ton for municipal solid waste.

Evidence of success is the national focus on recycling. Everywhere,
local and state governments are scrambling for ways to increase
recycling. This has occurred partly because people want to save the
planet but much more importantly because waste disposal is no longer

More evidence of success can be found in a piece of legislation now
working its way through Congress sponsored by Representative Peter
Kostmayer (D-PA), called H.R. 3253, The Pollution Prevention, Community
Recycling, and Incinerator Control Act. This legislation would ban both
hazardous and solid waste incineration for the remainder of this
decade, and then would allow new incinerators to be built only under
rigid control. It is conceivable that this legislation could pass in
its present form; it has more than 30 sponsors today. Or it could be
worked into a new version of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
(RCRA), the nation's basic law controlling waste disposal, which is up
for reauthorization by Congress and will be debated during the next
year or to (see RHWN #241). In either case, all national environmental
groups have signed onto the Kostmayer bill (with the exception of
National Wildlife Federation and Audubon, which, perhaps
coincidentally, both have representatives of the incinerator industry
on their boards of directors). This consensus among environmental
groups represents an affirmation of the grass-roots strategy to
discourage wastes by cutting off disposal, essentially stopping up the

Despite its success, the grass-roots strategy contains one major flaw,
which is available to be exploited by producers of toxic waste: our
failure to control the international trade in wastes. The failure of
U.S. law to close our borders to waste traders is a loophole you could
drive a garbage truck through, and many are.

RCRA is the U.S. law controlling wastes, including both hazardous waste
and municipal solid waste. RCRA is entirely silent on the shipment of
municipal solid waste (and incinerator ash from municipal solid waste)
to foreign countries; such shipments are perfectly legal. The famous
garbage barge (called the MOBRO) and the ship KHIAN SEA, which carried
Philadelphia incinerator ash from country to country for 18 months
trying unsuccessfully to dump its load, were entirely legal, though the
U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether the KHIAN SEA may have
finally dumped its load of toxic ash illegally in the Indian Ocean.

Even wastes that are legally defined as hazardous under RCRA can be
shipped to foreign soil. Under RCRA, if a U.S. company can find someone
in another country willing to accept its waste, it notifies EPA (U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency), which notifies the U.S. State
Department, which asks the receiving country if it really wants the
stuff. If the answer is yes, the waste can be shipped. That's all there
is to it. In the case of U.S. companies shipping hazardous waste to
Canada, the process is even easier; under a 1986 agreement, when the
State Department asks Canada if it will accept the waste, no answer
received within 30 days becomes an automatic yes and the waste can
cross the border. Canada's laws on landfilling are more lax than ours,
so U.S. companies sent 157,000 tons of toxic waste to Canada in 1990.
U.S. laws on incineration are more lax than Canada's, so Canada sent us
150,000 tons of toxic waste in 1990.

No one knows how much municipal waste travels between the U.S., Canada
and Mexico because such commerce is entirely legal and thus unregulated
and unmonitored.

An even larger loophole is the shipment of wastes to developing
countries for "recycling." The book GLOBAL DUMPING GROUND, co-authored
by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Bill Moyers, offers
several case studies of typical recycling schemes.[1] Each year the
U.S. discards about 70 million automobile batteries containing roughly
a billion pounds of toxic lead. Automobile batteries can legally be
sent abroad for "recycling." There they are heated to destroy the
plastic battery case and to free the metallic lead, a potent toxin.
GLOBAL DUMPING GROUND describes workers at a recycling plant in Brazil
where the employer forces them to take EDTA pills, a chelating agent (a
drug that removes toxic metals from the body but also has powerful side
effects). EDTA therapy was formerly used in this country for children
poisoned by lead, but only under close medical supervision. Despite the
forced administration of EDTA, 25 of 29 workers at the plant in Brazil
had lead levels exceeding U.S. safety standards. In a field near the
recycling plant, five cows died and authorities measured high lead
content in the farm's spring, pond, and pasture.

Increasingly strict regulation of battery recycling plants shut half of
U.S. battery recyclers between 1980 and 1986. But the international
waste trade loophole prevents real control of this problem and others
like it. U.S. companies export used batteries to Brazil, Mexico, Japan,
Canada, India, Venezuela, China, South Korea, South Africa, and Taiwan.
EPA knows these shipments are toxic but has no authority to intervene
unless a battery is cracked and leaking acid, in which case it can be
defined as a hazardous waste and controlled.

Children in Taiwan living near a lead smelter have elevated lead levels
in blood and teeth. "These children can be expected to have impaired
intelligence, slower physical growth, and some behavioral disorders--
trouble paying attention, hyperactivity," says Michael Rabinowitz, a
Harvard-trained geochemist studying lead contamination for the Taiwan

U.S. scrap metal exported to Taiwan, to mainland China, and to numerous
other countries, includes transformers filled with PCBs, lead, cadmium,
nickel, mercury, a spectrum of toxic chlorinated hydrocarbons, waste
oil, plastic wastes, and so on. Although they are not legally defined
as hazardous under RCRA, our EPA knows these wastes are plenty
dangerous. GLOBAL DUMPING GROUND quotes an EPA official saying such
wastes are exempt from environmental controls at the request of the
President's Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Commerce
Department, the U.S. Trade Representative's Office, and the Council of
Economic Advisors. The U.S.'s balance-of-payments problem provides
strong incentive to keep shipping dangerous wastes to Taiwan and

The head of Taiwan's EPA, Eugene Chien, believes the burden of a
solution should fall on the source of the waste. "The problem actually
relies on the United States because if they cannot export hazardous
waste to the underdeveloped countries, then this problem is all
solved," says Chien. Jim Vallette of Greenpeace agrees: "You don't
poison your neighbor. You don't dump garbage on your neighbor's lawn
for moral reasons. It's that simple," Vallette says.

So long as the loophole exists in U.S. law, grass-roots action to curb
production of toxics may not actually cause a reduction--it may just
squeeze wastes across the border, where they contaminate air, water and
soil. Sooner or later, on a finite planet, such problems must come home
to roost.

The only environmental organization systematically tracking the
international waste trade is Greenpeace.[2] The Greenpeace waste trade
campaign keeps its ears open for rumors of "recycling" scams, plans to
ship toxic incinerator ash abroad, or other schemes to ship wastes
across borders. By alerting government officials, news reporters, and
environmental groups in the receiving countries, Greenpeace has
derailed hundreds of international waste trade schemes. But such an
informal network can only catch a small fraction of the total traffic.
Ultimately, only new laws can close these gaping loopholes.

--Peter Montague


[1] Center for Investigative Reporting and Bill Moyers, GLOBAL DUMPING
GROUND (Washington, DC: Seven Locks Press, 1990). Also available as a
hard-hitting 58-minute VHS Video from Center for Investigative
Reporting (CIR), 530 Howard St., 2nd floor, San Francisco, CA 94105;
phone (800) 733-0015. From CIR, the book costs $11.95, the video costs
$29.95; the video plus the book costs $37.50.

[2] To keep abreast of what's going on, you can subscribe to the
GREENPEACE WASTE TRADE UPDATE, published periodically in English,
French and Spanish; annual subscription $10.00. Make check payable to
"Greenpeace Waste Trade Project," 1436 U St., N.W., Washington, DC
20009. To report waste trading schemes, phone Greenpeace at (202) 462-

Descriptor terms: waste disposal technologies; international waste
trade; global environmental problems; rcra; incineration; landfilling;
canada; center for investigative reporting; recycling; batteries; lead
smelting; greenpeace;