The environmental politics of the international waste trade
Global trade in toxic wastes accelerated during the 1980s, driven by high potential profits made possible through the combination of: (1) dramatic increases in waste generation, (2) the public NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) syndrome which blocks new disposal facilities in Western nations, and (3) very different regulatory climates for waste management among countries. Since 1986, proposals to ship wastes internationally total an estimated 163 million tons. Half of the approximately 10 million tons of toxic waste actually shipped since 1986 have been between industrialized countries to established landfills, incinerators, or recyclers. However, developing and eastern bloc countries received almost 5.2 million tons of the total exported. These recipients do not have the appropriate technical infrastructure, nor legal and administrative controls, to safely manage toxic wastes. No exporting country, importing country, nor international treaty adequately regulates, or even monitors, these transboundary movements.
The toxic waste trade is a case which bears out the "pollution haven" hypothesis: that less stringent environmental regulations will attract development of especially polluting products and processes to poorer nations. Questions of sovereignty and the right to independent risk assessments by each nation apply to waste imports, even though they are not desired products, but substances that parties must be paid to accept.
When viewed in the context of the North/South dialogue on environmental issues over the last twenty years, the response to this new toxic waste trade reveals an interesting twist. Early positions in the N/S debate by the Third World endorsed national development and sovereignty as primary concerns, and characterized environmental protection as a luxury. In a priority reversal, the Third World now demands environmental protection on this issue, while the industrialized world emphasizes development and sovereignty principles.
If the value dimensions of ethics and equity are considered, then the appropriate goals of waste trade negotiations become clear: to prevent the transfer of environmental risk to vulnerable groups, while at the same time allowing some legitimate trade. Selected market tools, international agreements, and national regulations could achieve the desired control of waste trading. Practical lessons derived from this case are useful for other aspects of international environmental policy negotiations.
0616: International relations
0768: Environmental science
0505: Business costs