Global Waste Trade: The Ugly Contour of Globalisation

Connecting two odd worlds, the supranational phenomenon of globalisation is most vehemently manifested in the sphere of global economic integration. The hyper-globalists opine that this revolutionary phenomenon has engaged all stakeholders at parity, thereby bringing equal dividends for all via international trade and circular commercial activity. Those sceptical of globalisation argue that the phenomenon is, yet another instrument designed by the developed world to further its exploitative agendas. As a contour of this increasing global connectivity, the industry of waste trade has emerged, which is fulfilling the contentions of globalisation sceptics. Owing to this global trade of industrial waste, the developing world is taking far greater economic and environmental tolls than the developed world, which is ironically the prime perpetrator of environmental degradation. This trade has become a platform that nurtures economic exploitation, environmental degradation and individual health decay in the global South.

Driven by the forces of rapid industrialisation and consumerism, the waste trade industry emerged in the 1970s and is thriving till date. As a by-product of rigorous industrial activity, the production of industrial waste has also increased at a massive scale, thereby making its disposal a much expensive affair. In the 1990s, the cost of disposing of industrial waste was estimated to having surpassed  $2,000 per metric ton in several cases. The waste trade market has tremendously expanded as a recent research suggests that the global industrial waste management market is expected to reach $2,513.74 billion by the year 2025. Additionally, the development of increasingly strict environmental legislations led to closure of many waste dumping sites and incinerations located in the global North. This factor coupled with “Not in My Backyard” policy actively prevented the development and expansion of disposal facilities in the global North. This led the developed world to look toward the developing countries as an inexpensive place to off-load their toxic industrial waste products. Attributing to their weak economies, the developing countries started importing the industrial waste along with meagre monetary compensations.

This trade has become a platform that nurtures economic exploitation, environmental degradation and individual health decay in the global South.

In this circular trade, the recipient states are at the exploited end. Given the frail economic condition of the recipient country, while apparently the sum gained against the waste importation seems handsome, in real terms, this amount is usually quite small as compared to the costs for disposal in industrialised countries. For instance, in the early 1980s, when the United States was dumping its industrial waste in Africa at a cost of US$2.50 per tonne, its estimated cost of dumping the same waste at home was around US$250 per tonne. Over the years, waste trade industry has gained unprecedented dominance. The markets of this waste are generally found in economically weak states which lack appropriate processing facilities and stringent environmental legislations. More importantly, a major chunk of imported industrial waste contains hazardous contents. During the recent decades, a number of Asian and African states have turned into receptacles of developed world’s industrial waste. Low labour costs and cheaper waste disposal in developing countries has facilitated the phenomenon.

China’s ban on plastic waste imports in January 2018, as a part of its National Sword Policy left the global waste trade industry into sheer chaos with the developed world looking for new waste dumping sites. This resulted into an expansion of global waste markets across other South Asian and Southeast Asian states like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and India. These states mainly welcome waste imports due to their fewer import regulations and less stringent controls while possessing highly inadequate waste processing and recycling mechanisms. According to a World Bank Report titled; “What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050,” around 90% of the waste imported by low-income countries is either openly burned or disposed of in unregulated incinerations. This generates environmental degradation afflicting individual health and eco-systems at large.

During the recent decades, a number of Asian and African states have turned into receptacles of developed world’s industrial waste.

Moreover, the waste chains are fraught with transnational organised crime, committed by corporations, waste brokers and individuals on different levels. This includes tax frauds, money laundering offences and false labelling of hazardous wastes as non-hazardous ones. For instance, highly hazardous e-wastes containing toxic contents of lead, mercury, and brominated flame retardants are usually labelled as second-hand electronic products and shipped across international borders.  Insufficient resources for monitoring the trade chains and low penalties against such offences make room for large-scale transnational organised crime, violating the international environmental laws and conventions.

Moreover, the waste chains are fraught with transnational organised crime, committed by corporations, waste brokers and individuals on different levels. This includes tax frauds, money laundering offences and false labelling of hazardous wastes as non-hazardous ones.

In order to respond to economic and environmental threats, emanating from global waste trade, a number of international regimes have been put in place. These include “Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal,” “Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade,” and “Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.” Quite recently, in December 2019, the global ban on waste trade as stipulated by the Basel Convention also qualified as international law.

However, even decades after these environmental legislations were put into force; traffic of toxic industrial waste remains a prime concern. For many weak states, economic gains continue to achieve a greater weightage against environmental sustainability. Such legislations also receive active lobbying and opposition from powerful corporate industries of the global North. Many states choose not to become part of these environmental regulations in order to evade environmental responsibilities. Basel Convention, the key waste-trade regulatory legislation has yet not been ratified by states like the USA, Japan, and Australia.

For many weak states, economic gains continue to achieve a greater weightage against environmental sustainability.

In order to respond to the global waste trade crisis, development of adequate waste management mechanisms needs to be brought at the top of political agendas at national and international levels. Global footprint of commercial activity needs to be reduced, and technological innovations that can foster an environment friendly recycling need to be introduced. Also, as financial incapacity remains the core factor behind this heinous trade sector, measures for sustainable capital generation in less-developed and developing states need to be initiated. In order to enhance countries’ compliance to anti-waste trade legislations, assessments regarding the regimes’ implementation and effectiveness should be made on regular basis. Mechanisms that ensure accurate data collection to mitigate the issues arising from improper data collection, data manipulation, and reporting shortcomings need to be introduced. More importantly, lack of knowledge, interest and awareness regarding the subject needs to be countered at all levels to make the functionality of environmental legislations possible.

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