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Trash Talk: A Toxic Trade

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

Waste management is a globalized issue, but the poorest countries have it the worst.

Passing the Parcel By Sakshi Maeen

In the 20th century, with the ease of global movement through modern transport systems, the world saw a new era of trading with an increasing exchange of goods and services between countries. And with this movement, waste (and yes, I mean trash) emerged as a popular commodity to be conventionally traded in the global market.

First-world countries found it substantially cheaper to export their hazardous waste halfway around the world to third-world countries for disposal, where environmental awareness and regulations were limited. With the world-over liberalisation of trade policies, developing countries, with little to offer to global trade, were often forced to accept waste imports as an instrument of economic expansion. These circumstances inadvertently made underdeveloped countries a dump yard to the wealthier countries of the globe.

By the late 1980s, this practice of dumping waste became so rampant that public outcry by the citizens of developing nations led to the introduction of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The Basel Convention, with 187 signatories, was a groundbreaking agreement of the time that aimed to protect human and planetary health by curbing and regulating the transboundary movement of hazardous waste.

Nonetheless, the adoption of the Basel Convention has made little difference to reality. Developing nations, such as India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria, and several others, continue to deal with massive inflows of foreign hazardous wastes to date, oftentimes smuggled into the countries illegally.

Individuals and firms are able to circumvent the system by exploiting loopholes in policy and gaps in implementation, allowing for dumping practices to continue.

For instance, the export of recycled materials is permissible under the Basel Convention. However, this aspect is misused and instead non-recyclable or hazardous waste is shipped to developing countries under the pretext of “recycling”. Through the agency of this disguise and owing to the lack of adequate monitoring systems in developing countries, the “recyclable waste” is erroneously accepted by the importers. Ultimately, instead of being transported to a recycling plant, the waste is often found in landfill sites or incineration units, leaving the citizens of developing countries to live with the waste and its effects.

Alternatively, even when local government authorities refuse to accept the waste of the West, the containers are simply shipped off to another developing country where they might be accepted. Attempts to deport illegal waste back to the country of origin prove to be another battle as developing nations often find that exporting countries refuse to take back their own waste. And most recently, each developing country's individual attempts to not become a toxic dump yard have resulted in the re-exporting of waste from one developing country to the other. It’s like a massive game of passing-the-parcel played across the globe!

By Reuters Staff | Apr 3, 2018 | Reuters

By Reuters Staff | Oct 31, 2019 | Reuters

By Ahmed Ali | Nov 6, 2019 | The Times of India

By Basten Gokkon | Nov 7, 2019 | Mongabay

Inevitably, toxic wastes of the world usually wind up in emergent nations, and the effects are long-lasting and devastating. Developing countries have no better means of processing and treating hazardous wastes from abroad, and thereby resort to the conventional practice of landfill disposal and/or incineration. These methods release toxic chemicals and gases into the environment, contaminating their land, water, and air, and consequently causing serious health issues.

In 2006, a cargo ship of an Anglo-Dutch company, Trafigura, discharged 500 tonnes, (equivalent to over twelve 20 shipping containers) of toxic waste in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire after deciding not to dispose of it in the Netherlands since it would cost more to the company. The illegal dumping of the waste in Abidjan led to the death of 15 people, over 108,000 victims seeking medical treatment and other complicated environmental issues that demanded extensive decontamination efforts after the incident.

In the case of Abidjan, victims of the dumping and other residents, even 10 years later continued to complain of the smell of the chemical waste when it rained heavily, as well as of headaches, skin problems, and respiratory issues that are believed to be linked to the disaster. These instances take developing countries a step back in their journey towards development and demonstrate how the long-term negative effects on the environment and health significantly outweigh any short-term financial gains.

So, who is at fault here - The industries and authorities of the wealthier countries who knowingly ship toxic waste across borders? Do private “recycling” companies import waste for personal profits? The governments of developing countries who are unable to enforce stricter measures? Or the Basel Convention for acting as a tool to pacify developing nations rather than ensuring the implementation of its policies?

Many people and institutions feel that simple economics should dictate the fate of where the wastes end up, which unquestionably puts all the pressure on third-world countries to accept the toxic waste of the world. Whereas others advocate for countries to take responsibility for their own waste, conveying that the foreign discharge of waste is nothing short of toxic colonialism, exposing the inhabitants of underdeveloped countries to incalculable and unjustifiable health and environmental risks.


The ease of international waste trading/smuggling has disincentivized developed countries from designing better waste management systems. Restricting global waste trade is one way to counter these issues and effectively pressure wealthier countries to forge waste systems that transcend current methods in terms of cost-effectiveness, convenience, and especially environmental and health impacts.

Leading the way, China has banned imports of plastic waste unless it is met with a purity standard of 99.5%, and other countries have followed suit imposing their own set of restrictions and investigating illegal operations in order to paralyse the waste smuggling industry.

While the movement of hazardous waste is a terrifying issue for the developing world and not one without unidentifiable long-term ramifications, waste management is a much deeper issue. Therefore it would be unfair to disregard the trade of non-toxic wastes against which there are hardly any restrictions. The coffee cups and candy wrappers of the West are also amongst the wastes shipped to developing countries for disposal, proving that the issue is deep-rooted and goes beyond toxicity content and existing global conventions.

Waste is here to stay, and therefore the countries of the world must come together to sort out this imminent and growing waste problem as a collective rather than attempt to escape from it.


OHCHR | Ten years on, the survivors of illegal toxic waste dumping in Côte d’Ivoire remain in the dark. (n.d.). Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Overview. (n.d.). Basel Convention.

Parker, L. (2018, November 16). China’s ban on trash imports shifts waste crisis to Southeast Asia. National Geographic.

Varkkey, H. (2019, July 29). By exporting trash, rich countries put their waste out of sight and out of mind (Opinion). CNN.

Cotta, B. (2020). What goes around, comes around? Access and allocation problems in Global North–South waste trade. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 20(2), 255–269.

Borowy, I. (2019). Hazardous Waste: The Beginning of International Organizations Addressing a Growing Global Challenge in the 1970s. Worldwide Waste: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 2(1).

1 comentario

Rashmi Bansal
Rashmi Bansal
03 jul 2021

A very important topic. Throwing your trash in your neighbour's garden doesn't eliminate waste. Perpetrators must be fined, shamed and made to clean up the mess.

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