"Just between you and me shouldn`t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries? […] I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that […] I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles." Lawrence Summers, leaked World Bank memo, 1991.
The Trade in Toxic Waste
Throughout the 1980s, the cost of hazardous waste disposal within developed countries rose dramatically. Luckily for waste-intensive industries, globalization and deregulation were also on the rise. These “dirty” industries, generally located in the Global North calculated that exporting their burdensome toxic waste to a less industrialized country of the Global South for a small fee was more economical than treating it domestically. At that time, the cost of disposal of one ton of hazardous waste in the US was $250 compared with a mere $2.50 in African states. This discrepancy provided the economic mandate for a new global toxic waste trade.
Global South states, often crippled by war, famine, and international debts in the aftermath of exploitation colonization, exploitative authoritarian regimes, and neoliberal restructuring, are common targets for dirty industries and hazardous waste brokers located in the Global North. They may stand to benefit financially as recipients of toxic wastes, but rarely are they equipped to properly handle and process these toxic materials. Worse, in many instances, trade in toxic wastes has been denied and obfuscated. In 1991, a US company mixed 1,000 tons of lead-ridden copper smelter dust with fertilizer that was then shipped and sold to Bangladeshi farmers who applied it on their land. In other cases, dangerous waste products have been exported under the guise of recycling, humanitarian aid, and raw materials for “further use.”
Summers has since insisted that his memo was ironic, but the pervasiveness of the economic rationale for such trade, which stems from the capitalist theory of “comparative advantage,” belies his claim. The right-wing Cato Institute, attempting to defend Summers’ memo, explains that toxic waste trade can be justified by considering the differing priorities between citizens of developed and developing countries. Simply put, in countries where incomes are higher, life expectancy is longer and therefore people have the vested interest, not to mention financial means, to limit chronic exposure to toxins and pollutants that may threaten their lives in the far future. As such, it is to their advantage to export toxic materials elsewhere.
In developing countries, on the other hand, life expectancy is shorter and the primary threats to health are more immediate: malnutrition, contamination of drinking water, disease, and poverty. Receiving toxic waste payments will go a long way in providing the more immediate needs of food, health, and education. In short, it is to their advantage to accept the long-term risks in return for immediately improving their lives in the short-term. Absent from this reasoning is the reality that shipments of hazardous waste arrive in countries where political corruption runs high and where remuneration from the waste trade are in any case unlikely to be distributed to those who are unknowingly subject to toxic exposure.
Furthermore, this rationalization of the waste trade is myopic and reactionary. It assumes that the desperate poverty of the Global South and the affluent consumerism of the Global North are not contingent matters, and places these rigged initial conditions beyond moral comment. If a country has urgent, immediate standard-of-living issues, those issues must be addressed, rather than embarking on a mission to prioritize the convenience of the wealthy, and justify this is terms of small financial remuneration.
For the people of the Global South, trade in toxic waste is a lose-lose situation.
An Inadequate Response
Patterns of toxic waste movement, primarily from north to south, have been subject to policy interventions. The Stockholm Declaration of 1972 paved the way for the world’s foremost international agreement for managing hazardous waste imports and exports: the Basel Convention of 1989. Ratified in 1992, the Basel Convention does not ban transboundary movements of hazardous wastes, but rather attempts to control them. In 1995, aiming to strengthen several weaknesses (such as the loose definition of “waste”), participating parties voted in favour of the controversial Basel Ban Amendment—a total ban of toxic waste import/export between specified countries. Unfortunately, it has not yet been ratified. In Africa, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) took further steps with their unanimously signed Bamako Convention of 1998, which essentially bans all imports of hazardous materials from outside the OAU. Nevertheless, most member states lack the capacity to implement the policy, and as such, many African countries, like other Global South states, remain victims of hazardous waste dumping from the Global North.
Case Study: The Italian Shipment to Lebanon
The history of toxic waste trade is rife with environmental devastation, human rights abuses, and complex, unending litigation. One such story dates back to the Lebanese civil war and is rarely discussed in local or international circles.
In 1987, a cargo ship that had recently been refused entry to Venezuela arrived at the port of Beirut, carrying 15,800 barrels and twenty containers of toxic substances from Italy. The contents have been described as a toxic “cocktail” of explosive nitrocellulose, out-dated medication, plastic and polyurethane wastes, toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic, and hundreds of barrels of highly toxic dioxin. In the throes of their fifteen-year civil war, the ship, its cargo, and the large sum of money used to bribe the local militia went unnoticed.
It wasn’t until a year later that the news was leaked, provoking a public outcry. The Italian government was finally coerced (ironically, via threats from a local terrorist group) into removing the waste. Yet despite claims that all the waste was removed, records indicate that only 5,500 barrels were loaded onto four ships destined to Italy and, moreover, that these ships never arrived in Italy, leaving one to surmise that the barrels were thrown overboard in the Mediterranean, a suspicion confirmed by a radio-journalist in Cyprus who overheard an incriminating radio conversation between two captains. The remaining barrels were distributed to Lebanese farmers and construction companies, and used as fertilizers, pesticides and “raw materials” for industry while others were dumped off the coast, abandoned in quarries, and in many cases, reused for storage of food and water.
Slightly more progress was made seven years later when a ship carried seventy-seven tons of toxic waste from Lebanon—most of which originated from the 1987 Italian load—to France, but the operation took place secretly and at the expense of Lebanese tax-payers. An unspecified quantity of the original shipment remains on Lebanese land and waters.
This year is the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of Lebanon’s civil war: a ripe opportunity to reflect on this infamous incident and revisit the question of international waste trade in Lebanon. In January of this year, the port of Beirut received a shipment of hazardous materials from India, this time radioactive in nature. Despite promises from Lebanese authorities that investigations will be conducted and that Lebanon will no longer be a dump for other countries’ wastes, several other radioactive shipments have arrived since, the most recent being radioactive sanitary products from China. Although it is unclear if these shipments were accidentally contaminated or deliberately exported “away”, with scant resources and weak governance, Lebanon’s people and environment remain vulnerable to toxic pollution imported from abroad.
The Politics of Waste
What is thrown away is supposed to go away, that`s a large part of what it means to become waste in the modern world. That necessarily means that there must be places that can be classified as “away.” And away must presumably be a place that we do not want to go, because nobody wants to meet her waste again. Away must be a place where there are no people, or where the people do not matter. Better still, away must be a place where the people and their environments are conceptualized as being themselves consistent with waste. Away must be home to people whose lives are sufficiently desperate that they`re willing to receive our waste, and some of them will even be glad of it.
The decision of the Italian company to deliver the waste to Lebanon was the result of many factors. During the civil war, long-term issues were not prioritized and infrastructure was weak, which, coupled with the high levels of corruption that are typical of postcolonial states, produced an ideal climate for deceit and exploitation. But the overarching reason is more blunt: in the eyes of the Global North, Lebanon is one of “them” rather than one of “us”, as such, the bold move of deceptively offloading dangerous waste there rather than somewhere more familiar, becomes “understandable.” It is this way of apprehending the Global South, and its peoples, that makes the global waste trade seem unproblematic, and even sensible, to its perpetrators.
These practices are now commonly known as “toxic colonialism.” A central part of colonialism is the extraction of wealth from the colonized to the colonizer. This involves a net gain to the colonizer and a net loss to the colonised in terms of natural resources and labour. When a Global North country exports its waste to a Global South country, a similar gain-loss relationship is at work. First, most Global North production starts with Global South natural resources. Second, these resources are processed in Global South countries, using Global South labour. Third, Global North consumers mostly enjoy the resulting products. Finally, the waste produced as a result of the manufacture of products, and the products themselves, when they inevitably themselves become waste (thanks to planned obsolescence), are shouldered by Global South countries. That waste must be processed, often at great risk to the impoverished informal workers (many of them children) who carry out the processing with limited equipment and no health and safety precautions. Every stage of this process is a form of extraction of value from poor countries to rich countries, or, equivalently the depositing of negative value (in the form of waste) upon poor countries.
So the term “toxic colonialism” transcends mere analogy. It is not just a way of sensationalizing this worrying environmental phenomenon through its resemblance to a well-documented historical evil. The waste redistribution described by toxic colonialism is the subtler, later phase of the very same colonial process, which started by extracting the resources of poorer nations and will end by populating them with waste. In essence, poor countries are dispossessed of their natural resource equity and then burdened with negative equity in the form of a hellish and irreversible degradation of lands and the creation of new long-term health problems.
Toxic colonialism meets short-term preferences in the Global North by passing on punishing long-term responsibilities to the Global South. The money paid to Global South countries to dispose of waste or recycle waste must be considered in a distributed form, measured against the environmental damage caused by the waste. Measuring the deleterious effects in terms of the environmental and public health of the receiving communities, it is obvious that a very raw deal is being brokered, while emerging informal communities are crippled into dependencies on dangerous imports.
Toxic colonialism degrades and pollutes the lands of the Global South. Governments and corporations demand that economies “grow,” production – and therefore waste - rises exponentially. Ex-colonies of subjugated peoples become colonies of waste on subjugated land. Larry Summers and his neoliberal defenders assure us that this is a way of sharing the burdens of global capitalism. The Global South has carried all of the burdens of globalization, while its peoples are least likely to have experienced any of its benefits. Just as exploitation colonialism creates possibilities for the colonizers and denies possibilities to the colonized, so too does toxic colonialism create possibilities for the exporter, in freeing resources for more productive activities, while severely limiting the future possibilities of the importing state. With poisoned environments and people enslaved into the urgent task of processing dangerous waste and addressing ever-rising environmental health issues, the deposition of waste spells out a bleak, pre-determined future for Global South communities. That narrowing of possibilities is a form of theft: it steals the futures of peoples and lands that are too poor to turn away the waste of others.