EU learns a lesson about chemical waste

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Oil trader Trafigura maintains that it did nothing wrong by disposing of hundreds of tons of “chemical slops” in the Ivory Coast back in 2006. But on Friday a Dutch court said otherwise, fining the Swiss-based multinational $1.3 million dollars for exporting its waste to a developing country and harming the environment.

Trafigura insists the waste was not toxic and disputes the Ivorian government’s claim that 16 people died and thousands were sickened because it was dumped in the streets of Abidjan. That was after it had tried to offload the stuff in Amsterdam, where the cost quoted for the clean-up was deemed too high, leading Trafigura to instead subcontract the disposal to an Ivorian agent.

Four years later, European authorities are doing a better, but hardly perfect, job of preventing toxic exports. The European Commission estimates that 2.6 billion tons of waste is generated in the EU each year and that 90 million tons of that is hazardous.

Read: Imagining a recyclable EU

At the same time, the EU’s executive admitted that illegal “dumping of waste continues on a significant scale, many landfill sites are sub standard and … illegal waste shipments are also a concern.” Its own reporting shows that recent checks on waste shipments out of the EU revealed a full fifth of them to be in violation.

Last month, Nigerian government authorities were waiting in a Lagos port for one of those vessels as it arrived from Antwerp, Belgium. They’d been tipped off by Antwerp police that the MV Gumel Panama would be bringing in eight trucks full of illegal toxic waste — including old batteries, broken TVs, worn-out videocassette players and refrigerators containing outlawed chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) — as it had managed to slip away after 33 similar containers had been confiscated in Antwerp’s port. Nigeria turned the ship back to Antwerp.

Two months earlier, another vessel filled with similar items was intercepted in the same port and sent back to Rotterdam, Netherlands where it had been loaded.

All too often, the perpetrators come from the countries with the most stringent legislation in the world against toxic waste, the European Union.

The potential for profit is just too high, laments Greenpeace, estimating an annual turnover of $124 billion, providing 1.5 million jobs. The organization has been tracking the illegal trade for years and last month released the report “The Toxic Ship," documenting 94 attempts to export hazardous cargo to Africa, often by European sources, including the Italian mafia.

Especially tied to Italy are are strange incidents such as ships full of waste that sink in the Mediterranean Sea without so much as a “mayday.”

The EU is not lacking in waste legislation; it has some 60 regulations, directives and decisions. But enforcement is the problem.

Besides the bloc’s own regulations prohibiting such activities, all EU nations are bound by the Basel Convention, outlawing the export of hazardous waste and requiring it to be treated as close to its origin as possible. (The U.S. has not ratified the treaty.)

But by exploiting the many loopholes — such as calling the items “donations” or claiming that they are functioning second-hand goods for re-sale — or by simply breaking the law, middlemen are making millions, which developing nations are paying for with their health.

Of course, there is also a small segment of the population of these mainly West African nations that is profiting too, and the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) considers it so serious that it warns “democracy will not flourish” as long as the illegal trade does.

Another organization tracking such shipments is the Danish organization DanWatch.

DanWatch researchers have found pieces of old computers on waste piles in Ghana clearly labeled with stickers from Danish companies, schools and government ministries.

In a documentary made by the group, environmental journalist Mike Anane confirmed most of the tons of electronic trash comes from the U.S. and Europe, much of it “under the guise of donations.” 

“When you examine the items, they don’t work,” Anane said. “So one would wonder why somebody would want to ‘donate’ items that don’t work if it’s not dumping. It’s just a way to get rid of these computers from Europe to Africa.”

DanWatch is currently working on a new assessment of the levels of that kind of European “benevolence.”

Maren Swart is in Accra, Ghana, polling shop owners about the source of the decrepit computers they are selling as second-hand items.

“I’ve been in two shops today and both said they came from Europe,” she said Thursday in a telephone interview as she drove through the Ghanaian capital. On Friday Swart reported she'd found computers clearly marked as coming from the U.S. government, the Senate and the Department of Justice all in one store. She’s trying to get access to the harbor to look at incoming shipments of what she expects will be more such items, but authorities have thus far refused.

Swart explained that DanWatch wasn’t necessarily telling conscientious Europeans to quit sending gently used electronic goods to developing nations, which can in fact benefit the populations in many ways. What Swart and her organization want is for the ships that bring in this tonnage of dubious usefulness should also take back the same amount of broken, unsalvageable items so it can be dismantled in safe European facilities.

“You think you’re doing something right, but you aren’t!” she chided well-meaning donors.

Another option, she suggested, would be to donate money and expertise to help developing countries set up their own higher-tech facilities.

Swart fears it will be a long time before any of the measures being taken in Brussels are felt in Accra. That seems realistic given the goal stated by former Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas when pledging to step up enforcement of existing waste laws “to deliver the maximum benefits for citizens, the environment and the EU economy."