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.