Thursday, January 26, 2012

Toxic Colonialism

Reduce, re-use, re-cycle! This familiar environmentalist slogan represents the goal of minimising the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, incinerators, and waterways.

Trade in toxic waste refers to the migration of dirty industries to less developed countries. Unfortunately, Africa is the first choice of location for the dumping of European waste. Industrialised countries export their waste to emerging nations and capitalise on less expensive disposal cost. When the treatment of hazardous waste is considered too polluting or least profitable, Western countries send the waste Africa and Asia, in the name of recycling. All the way down the West African coast, American and European ships offload containers filled with old computers, slops, and used medical equipment. Scrap merchants, corrupt politicians and underpaid civil servants take charge of this rubbish and, for a few dollars; they dump it off coastlines and on landfill sites.

Africa is vulnerable to the uneven economics of waste trade because it includes most of the world's severely impoverished countries, most of whom are in dire need of foreign exchange. Africa has long existed as a sphere from which the West could extrapolate wealth and resources. When those resources have fulfilled their purpose, Africa absorbs the garbage produced with their resources, but not by them. A major factor that spurs on the trans-boundary shipment of waste is the disparity in disposal cost between developed and developing nations. The rising cost of waste disposal and the introduction of more stringent environmental control standards in the developed world render developing countries (particularly in Africa) an attractive destination for waste disposal. Disposal of hazardous waste may cost as much as US$ 2,000 per tonne in a developed nation, versus US$ 40 per tonne in Africa. The high cost of waste disposal in many developed countries is due in part to compliance costs with strict regulations and in part to effective local opposition to sitting landfills (often called NIMBY- Not in My Backyard).

Although they lack adequate installations of toxic waste treatment, numerous African countries, including Benin, Congo-Brazzaville, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Nigeria, Togo, Somalia and others imported whole cargoes of toxic waste (industrial muds, cyanides, solvents, pesticides, pharmaceutical waste) and even nuclear waste ( from Somalia) at very low cost to the ‘sellers’: between US$ 3 and US$ 40 per ton, compared to the US$ 75 – 300 that elimination would cost industrial nations. Sometimes the waste was packaged in barrels marked ‘fertiliser’ or even ‘humanitarian aid’.

Toxic waste colonialism can take various forms. Often masked as the exportation of valuable goods, large amounts of discarded computers, mobiles phones and other electronic junk, as well as old cars and refrigerators are sent to Africa. The objects are all filled with hazardous substances, some of which are highly toxic, including oil, fire retardants, dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Due to ongoing technological advancement, many electronic products become obsolete within a very short period of time, creating a large surplus of unwanted electronic products, or ‘e-waste,’ defined as all secondary computers, entertainment device electronics, mobile phones, and other items such as television sets and refrigerators (whether sold, donated, or discarded by their original owners). This definition includes used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal. Under the cloak of cooperation and development aid, this kind of pollution continues. 500 shipping containers loaded with second hand electronic equipments arrives in Nigeria monthly. This amount of containers equals about 100,000 computers or 44,000 TV sets.Three-quarters of the supposedly reusable electronics shipped to Africa's largest port are broken. The useless e-waste ends up in unofficial dumpsites, where it is picked apart by unprotected workers (many of them children) in search of saleable metals. After all the metal has been removed, the remaining plastic, cables and casings are usually burnt. These processes are extremely hazardous to health: most of the e-waste contains toxins such as lead, mercury and chlorinated dioxins, not to mention the noxious fumes and chemicals released by the burning waste. The waste and toxic gases disposed on opened ground around the densely populated city of Abidjan caused significant health problems to the majority of Ivorian people living at the periphery. According to official estimates, 20 people died, 69 were hospitalized and there were more than 108,000 medical consultations resulting from the incident. The sludge was particularly harmful to children who made up the majority of the official deaths. It is suspected that many deaths were not counted in the official toll.

Sometimes it is arranged in the form of contracts, signed between the Governments of underdeveloped and developed states. For instance, in one case the Government of Benin signed an agreement with France and received an advance cash payment of US$ 1.6 million and 30 years of development aid in return for accepting hazardous waste, including radioactive waste. Waste shipments contain poisonous metals, hospital waste, expired chemicals and pesticides and toxic sludge, all destined to be buried, incinerated or recycled.

The issue of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) is also part of the growing trend in toxic waste trade in Africa. There are huge stockpiles of pesticides in African countries, estimated at hundreds of thousands of tonnes. These pesticide stockpiles are unwanted and obsolete and some are already banned in many countries of the world due to their hazardous threat to the environment, human health, animals and plants. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) compiled an inventory of obsolete stockpiles for 45 countries in Africa. The stockpiles estimated to exist in Africa was totalled at 20,000 tonnes, but more stockpiles have since been declared. This includes heavily contaminated soil and empty and contaminated pesticide containers, so the current total stands at nearly 50,000 tonnes and is likely to increase much above this total. These substances are produced and exported by the 11 most powerful multinational chemical companies who dominate 90% of the world market, namely American Cyanamid, BASF, Bayer, Ciba-Geigy, DowElanco, DuPont, Monsanto, Rhône-Poulenc, Sandoz, Zeneca, and AgrEVO.

Taken from here

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