The amount of waste on the move is increasing rapidly. Reports to the
Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous
Wastes and their Disposal suggest that between 1993 and 2001 the amount
of waste crisscrossing the globe increased from 2 million tonnes to more
than 8.5 million tonnes. What is this material that is being traded between
countries, where is it from and where is it going? Unfortunately data
on waste movements are incomplete – not all countries report waste movements
to the Basel Convention. However, we do know that the movement of waste
is big business.
Well travelled waste
Waste, including extremely hazardous waste like radioactive material,
toxic heavy metals and poisonous PCBs are routinely being loaded into
trucks, and transported across continents. Some is loaded onto ships and
exported to other countries. Often the waste is being sent for recycling
but some is just dumped. Between 1993 and 1999, 122 countries reported
nearly 30 000 waste exports. During this period Germany was the top exporter
(nearly 7 million tonnes) and France was the leading importer (just over
3 million tonnes).
Approximately 75% of the total volume of waste is traded between developed
countries (OECD members). At the second conference of the parties to the
Basel Convention, Parties adopted a ban on the export of hazardous waste
for final disposal from OECD countries to non-OECD countries (which has
not entered into force). The shipment of wastes intended for reuse or
recycling is currently negotiated between individual countries, ensuring
that OECD countries can still export hazardous material for this purpose
to non-OECD countries.
What is being traded?
According to the Basel Convention reports, of more than 300 million tonnes
of waste (including hazardous and other waste) generated worldwide in
2000, a little less that 2% was exported. However 90% of the exported
waste was classified as hazardous. The principal waste export by volume
was lead and lead compounds bound for recycling.
Transport of radioactive waste
Over 50 countries currently have spent fuel stored in temporary locations,
awaiting reprocessing or disposal. Major commercial reprocessing plants
operate in France, the United Kingdom, and Russian Federation with a capacity
of some 5000 tonnes per year. Countries like Japan have sent 140 shipments
of spent fuel for reprocessing to Europe since 1979. In October 2004 France
took possession of 660 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium from the United
States for reprocessing into fuel. Two ships carried the radioactive material
from South Carolina to the French port of Cherbourg. It was then loaded
onto lorries and driven 18 km to La Hague for the first stage of reprocessing.
It is currently at a plant in the south-east France and is expected to
be transported back to the United States in 2005. While reprocessing is
an option, others are looking for disposal sites for their nuclear waste.
For example the Taiwan Power Company (Taipower) has been negotiating since
1997 to dispose of low-level nuclear waste at a site in North Korea –
something that alarms many in the rest of the world. Problems with the
environmental safety of the site offered by the North Koreans have slowed
progress on the deal.