The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is an international agreement that governs cross-border shipments of toxic waste. Adopted in 1989 and entering into force in 1992, the agreement was a direct response to the growing problem of unregulated waste shipments in the 1980s, particularly between rich and poor countries. Waste exports to developing countries emerged at that time as a result of rising disposal fees in rich countries, the need for foreign exchange in poor countries, and an increasingly fluid global economy that facilitated the trade in waste.
The United Nations Environment Program sponsored negotiations on the Basel Convention in the late 1980s following public outcry in response to waste export scandals involving poor countries. The agreement covers toxic, poisonous, explosive, corrosive, flammable, eco-toxic, and infectious wastes. As of October 2007, there were 170 parties to the Basel Convention.
The objectives of the Basel Convention are to reduce the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes, encourage the treatment and disposal of hazardous wastes as close as possible to their generation, and minimize the generation of hazardous wastes.
The agreement governs the international trade in hazardous waste through a system of informed notification and consent. Exporting states must notify the importing country in writing before they ship hazardous waste and must receive consent in writing fromthe importing state before the shipment can be made.This system allows states to decide case by case whether they wish to accept a particular shipment. Parties to the agreement are prohibited from exporting hazardouswaste to states that have banned its import. They are also prohibited from exporting waste to nonparties unless a bilateral or regional agreement allows such trade, provided it is disposed of in no less environmentally sound a manner than that called for in the BaselConvention. Parties to the agreement are encouraged to export hazardous wastes to other countries only if they themselves lack the capacity to dispose of it in an environmentally soundmanner, or if the importing country considers the waste a raw material.
Immediately after the Basel Convention was adopted, a number of developing countries and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized it for havingaweakcontrolmechanism.Criticshadwanted the agreement to place an outright ban on the trade in hazardous waste between rich and poor countries, but the adopted agreement only regulated exports of waste between these groups of countries. In addition, some countries continued to export hazardous wastes to developing countries for the purpose of recycling, thereby evading the Basel Convention’s control mechanismbecause thematerial was not identified as hazardous. Throughout the early 1990s environmental NGOs documented a significant number of toxic waste exports to developing countries for recycling purposes.Most of these exportswere recycled in environmentally unsoundways, orwere in fact not recycled at all and were simply disposed of.
In response to these concerns, developing countries andNGOsworked to strengthen the convention in the early 1990s. In 1995, at the second conference of the parties to the agreement, the parties adopted an amendment to the convention that bans outright the export of hazardous waste destined for either disposal or recycling fromAnnexVII countries (parties that are members of the European Union or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Lichtenstein) to non Annex VII countries. This amendment, which has come to be known as the Basel Ban, required ratification by three-fourths of the parties in order to come into force.Many assumed that this number would be 62, as there were 82 parties to the Basel Convention when the Basel Ban amendment was adopted. Uncertainty emerged, however, over ratification procedures when the number of ratifications approached 62: whether the amendment required ratification by three-fourths of the parties at the time itwas adopted, three-fourths of the parties present when it was adopted, or three-fourths of the current number of parties. It is expected that the 2008Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention will adopt a decision that will resolve this ambiguity. As of October 2007 there were 63 ratifications of the Basel Ban amendment.
In the late 1990s, the parties to the Basel Convention also adopted a classification system for hazardous wastes that delineates more clearly which wastes the treaty covers, including those destined for recycling operations. This system has clarified the scope of the convention considerably.
Challenges for Enforcement
The Basel Convention has curtailed some types of hazardous waste exports to developing countries, but two major challenges have emerged that illustrate the difficulty of full enforcement.
The first of these challenges concerns the export of ships containing toxic materials to developing countries for scrapping. Since the mid-1990s, industrial countries have exported a number of ships to scrap yards in developing countries,most commonly India and Bangladesh, for decommissioning. These ships often contain highly toxic materials such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos. In developing countries, ships are commonly dismantled in dangerous and environmentally unsound conditions. Because the ships are technically in use when exported and often not designated as waste material until on the high seas or until they reach their final destination, many have escaped control under the rules of the Basel Convention. Environmental NGOs such as the Basel Action Network (BAN) andGreenpeace have launched campaigns to halt this practice by exposing the failure of exporting states to enforce the Basel Convention when toxic ships are exported from their ports. These efforts have had some success, such as the 2006 decision of the French government to halt the export of the Clemenceau, which had been destined for scrapping in India.
The second challenge has to do with the export of electronic waste (e-waste), including discarded computers, mobile phones, and other electronic equipment. E-waste, which contains numerous toxic components, including heavy metals and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), is an especially fast-growing waste streamin industrial countries.Much of this waste has been exported to developing countries, such asChina and Nigeria, without being subjected to the Basel Convention rules on notification and consent, and despite bans in those countries on the import of toxic waste. Often these wastes are exported under the pretense of reuse, when in practice they are recycled or simply land-filled. The conditions under which these wastes are recycled and disposed of in these locations are dangerous and environmentally unsound. Several factors have contributed to the continued export of e-waste to developing countries, including the facts that it can escape controlwhen it is exported for reuse even if most of it is broken and beyond repair, and that customs officials lack knowledge about the hazardous nature of secondhand electronic components. Environmental groups such asBANhave called for pretesting of secondhand electronics before shipment to determine whether they are suitable for reuse or are simply hazardous wastes that would then be bound by the rules of the Basel Convention.
At the same time that the parties to the Basel Convention are considering ways to address these continuing problems with the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes, they have broadened the emphasis of the treaty for its second decade. Environmentally sound management of hazardous waste, as well as the prevention or minimization of such waste, has receivedmore attention.Much of thework of the Basel Convention Secretariat now focuses on enhancing technical and administrative capacity to minimize waste generation and manage hazardous waste safely, especially in developing countries.
The Basel Convention has served an important role in the global economy by regulating the trade in what many consider to be ‘‘bads’’ as opposed to ‘‘goods.’’ The parties to the agreement have taken considerable steps toward banning the export of toxic wastes from rich to poor countries. Although the difficulties of monitoring and enforcement allow certain types of toxic waste exports to continue, without the Basel Convention it is likely that the problem of unwanted hazardous waste exports to poor countries would be far worse. See also multilateral environmental agreements; trade and the environment