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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Basel Convention

The Basel Convention (verbose: Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal) is an international treaty that was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries (LDCs). It does not, however, address the movement of radioactive waste. The Convention is also intended to minimize the amount and toxicity of wastes generated, to ensure their environmentally sound management as closely as possible to the source of generation, and to assist LDCs in environmentally sound management of the hazardous and other wastes they generate.

The Convention was opened for signature on March 22, 1989, and entered into force on May 5, 1992. A list of parties to the Convention, and their ratification status, can be found on the Basel Secretariat's web page. Of the 170 parties to the Convention, Afghanistan, Haiti, and the United States have signed the Convention but have not yet ratified it.


With the tightening of environmental laws (e.g., RCRA) in developed nations in the 1970s, disposal costs for hazardous waste rose dramatically. At the same time, globalization of shipping made transboundary movement of waste more accessible, and many LDCs were desperate for foreign currency. Consequently, the trade in hazardous waste, particularly to LDCs, grew rapidly.

One of the incidents which led to the creation of the Basel Convention was the Khian Sea waste disposal incident, in which a ship carrying incinerator ash from the city of Philadelphia in the United States after having dumped half of its load on a beach in Haiti, was forced away where it sailed for many months, changing its name several times. Unable to unload the cargo in any port, the crew was believed to have dumped much of it at sea.

Another is the 1988 Koko case in which 5 ships transported 8,000 barrels of hazardous waste from Italy to the small town of Koko in Nigeria in exchange for $100 monthly rent which was paid to a Nigerian for the use of his farmland.

These practices have been deemed "Toxic Colonialism" by many developing countries.

At its most recent meeting, November 27–December 1, 2006, the Conference of the Parties of the Basel Agreement focused on issues of electronic waste and the dismantling of ships.

According to Maureen Walsh in "The global trade in hazardous wastes: domestic and international attempts to cope with a growing crisis in waste management" 42 Cath. U. Law Review 103 (1992), only around 4% of hazardous wastes that come from OECD countries are actually shipped across international borders. These wastes include, among others, chemical waste, radioactive waste, municipal solid waste, asbestos, incinerator ash, and old tires. Of internationally-shipped waste that comes from developed countries, more than half is shipped for recovery and the remainder for final disposal.

Increased trade in recyclable materials has led to an increase in a market for used products such as computers. This market is valued in billions of dollars. At issue is the distinction when used computers stop being a "commodity" and become a "waste".

Definition of hazardous waste

A waste will fall under the scope of the Convention if it is within the category of wastes listed in Annex I of the Convention and it does exhibit one of the hazardous characteristics contained in Annex III . In other words it must both be listed and contain a characteristic such as being explosive, flammable, toxic, or corrosive. The other way that a waste may fall under the scope of the Convention is if it is defined as or considered to be a hazardous waste under the laws of either the exporting country, the importing country, or and of the countries of transit .

The definition of the term disposal is made in Article 2 al 4 and just refers to annex IV, which gives a list of operations which are understood as disposal or revovery. The examples of disposal are broad and include also recovery, recycling and reuse.

Annex II lists other wastes such as household wastes and residue that comes from incinerating household waste.

Radioactive waste that is covered under other international control systems and wastes from the normal operation of ships is not covered.

Annex IX attempts to define "commodities" which are not considered wastes and which would be excluded.


In addition to conditions on the import and export of the above wastes, there are stringent requirements for notice, consent and tracking for movement of wastes across national boundaries. It is of note that the Convention places a general prohibition on the exportation or importation of wastes between Parties and non-Parties. The exception to this rule is where the waste is subject to another treaty that does not take away from the Basel Convention. The United States is a notable non-Party to the Convention and has a number of such agreements for allowing the shipping of hazardous wastes to Basel Party countries.

The OECD Council also has its own control system that governs the trans-boundary movement of hazardous materials between OECD member countries. This allows, among other things, the OECD countries to continue trading in wastes with countries like the United States that have not ratified the Basel Convention.

Parties to the Convention must honor import bans of other Parties.

Article 4 of the Basel Convention calls for an overall reduction of waste generation. By encouraging countries to keep wastes within their boundaries and as close as possible to its source of generation, the internal pressures should provide incentives for waste reduction and pollution prevention.

The Convention states that illegal hazardous waste traffic is criminal but contains no enforcement provisions.

According to Article 12, Parties are directed to adopt a protocol that establishes liability rules and procedures that are appropriate for damage that comes from the movement of hazardous waste across borders.

Basel Ban Amendment

After the initial adoption of the Convention, some LDCs and environmental organizations argued that it did not go far enough. Many nations and NGOs argued for a total ban on shipment of all hazardous waste to LDCs. In particular, the original Convention did not prohibit waste exports to any location except Antarctica but merely required a notification and consent system known as "prior informed consent" or PIC. Further, many waste traders sought to exploit the good name of recycling and begin to justify all exports as moving to recycling destinations. Many believed a full ban was needed including exports for recycling. These concerns led to several regional waste trade bans, including the Bamako Convention.

Lobbying at the 1995 Basel conference by LDCs, Greenpeace and key European countries such as Denmark, led to a decision to adopt the Basel Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention. Not yet in force, but considered morally binding by signatories, the Amendment prohibits the export of hazardous waste from a list of developed (mostly OECD) countries to developing countries. The Basel Ban applies to export for any reason, including recycling. An area of special concern for advocates of the Amendment was the sale of ships for salvage, shipbreaking. The Ban Amendment was strenuously opposed by a number of industry groups as well as nations including the United States and Canada. As of late-2005, 63 nations have ratified the Basel Ban Amendment; 62 are required for it to enter into force. The status of the amendment ratifications can be found on the Basel Secretariat's web page. The European Union fully implemented the Basel Ban in its Waste Shipment Regulation (EWSR), making it legally binding in all EU member states.

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