Passing The Muck
issue 203 - January 1990
Passing the muck
Western countries are overflowing with dangerous waste - and their first thought is to
dump it in the Third World. Nigerian journalist Elizabeth Obadina tells a dirty story.
Uproar breaks out in Nigeria during 1988, when officials discover that an Italian ship has illegally dumped toxic waste at the small delta port of Koko. Nigeria threatens to execute toxic waste dumpers; it seizes an innocent Italian ship berthed in Lagos; it recalls the Nigerian ambassador from Rome and sends the Italian ambassador packing. Then it forces Italy to remove almost 4,000 tons of offending industrial wastes from Nigerian soil. Within six weeks, mountains of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polluted earth and other waste have been evacuated.
But the story is too big to be kept quiet. Media coverage generates public generates public outrage, if incomplete understanding. Villagers in Bendel State hide their television and radio sets on treetops because they fear that electronic equipment will transmit radioactivity.
Anger at the Nigerian Government is widespread. Nigeria has led African countries in banning the importation of waste from industrialized countries. This is on the grounds that there are no high-temperature incineration facilities in sub-Saharan Africa and no plans to build any. The country has used its position as Africa's Big Brother - one in four Africans is Nigerian - to lean on states wavering towards accepting foreign waste. Having campaigned from the moral high ground, the Nigerian Government is acutely embarrassed to be caught throwing stones from a glass house.
When pressed by journalists for an assurance that Koko is Nigeria's only dump, the irritated Minister for Works and Housing snaps, 'I cannot confirm that Koko is the only dump. Only a fool would do that, Nigeria being what it is.'
What he means is that Nigeria is notoriously difficult to police. Corrupt border-officials collude with importers of dubious goods wanting to grease their way into the country. And corruption is condoned by powerful grandees in government and business. As one Nigerian journalist explains, most African leaders have their drinking water imported from Europe - so why should they bother about the danger that dumped waste might contaminate underground water?
|Disposing of toxic waste|
The South African government has approved a project to build a plant capable of handling 500,000 tons of imported waste a year.
The government of the Bahamas has tentatively approved a plan to allow a US company - Summit Cement and Development Corporation - to burn 88,000 tons of hazardous wastes on Grand Bahama Island.¹
The USS Chemicals company in Ironton, Ohio has been saving around $100,000 in raw-material costs through reducing air emissions by 100,000 lbs per year.²
Cutting waste also helps beat disposal costs - which is why the Borden Chemical Company in Fremond, California, reduced its toxic phenol wastes by 93 per cent.³
1 Greenpeace US, 1989.
There are also substantial financial attractions for a Third World country in becoming someone's dustbin. Guinea-Bissau stood to gain 600 million dollars - twice its foreign debt - when it agreed to bury 15 million tons of Philadelphia's municipal ash. It only cancelled the deal after the Organization of African Unity decided to increase action against dumping in 1988.
The West regularly sends shiploads of toxic waste to the Third World, and if countries decline to take it, the waste is frequently dumped anyway. For example a ship called the Felicialeft Philadelphia in August 1986 carrying a cargo of incinerator ash containing harmful metal residues. It drifted the globe for just over two years looking for a port to discharge the ash, and even changed its name to the Pelicano in an attempt to escape detection. Finally, weary of its enforced nomadism, it tipped its cargo overboard into the Indian Ocean. Industrial nations dump 20 billion tonnes of industrial waste into the Indian Ocean annually, according to the government of Madagascar.
In Nigeria however, the discovery of the Koko dump led to the setting up of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency - a new initiative in environment policing. To date this has acted against some of Nigeria's chief polluters - for example, it closed down a government-owned super-phosphate plant which was emitting dangerous levels of sulphur-dioxide.
But when it comes to the dumping of Western waste, Africa faces a problem. While Western and developing countries apparently agree that they should prevent the 'environmentally unsound disposal' of hazardous waste, there is no consensus about what the term 'hazardous' means. Countries like Nigeria classify all waste as hazardous. But Western countries generally disagree. While Africa wants to prohibit totally the cross-border movement of wastes, the West seeks only to control it. Altogether 33 countries approved a draft treaty, drawn up at Basel last March, which called for the toxic waste trade to be regulated instead of for a total ban.
Third World countries are especially worried about the dumping of nuclear waste. So far the 'Dumpwatch' surveillance system, established in 1988 by the 16 members of the Economic Community of West African States, has limited this by implementing tough new anti-dumping laws - especially in Ghana, Nigeria and C6te d'Ivoire. The danger is that American and European dumpers will bypass these states and head for poorer countries, where the lure of enormous pay-offs in hard currency could prove irresistible.
Elizabeth Obadina lives and works in Lagos.
· Use fewer chemicals. Um'rt the numbers of domestic chemicals you buy - like bleaches, pesticides and weedkillers. Avoid buying foods packaged in non-biodegradable plastics and opt for recyclable, containers. Where possible keep containers and use them again.
· Join a campaigning organization. The International Toxic Waste Action Network is a global coalition of environmental, consumer and other citizen groups, representing millions of people worldwide. Its aim is to end the international trade in toxic wastes, particularly the dumping of such wastes in Third World countries. It has called for a global convention outlawing all toxic waste trade schemes - and it needs your support. For more information about it contact Greenpeace (see Ideas for Action).
· Work locally. Find out what waste is being dumped near your home and campaign against it.
Harmony in abundance
In southern China, every bit of land is used not once but three times. Rice grows in water. Fish swim in the water amid the rice. Ducks paddle on the water, above the rice and fish. Travelling around China I was continually amazed by the ingenuity with which the Chinese use and re-use every scrap of what we often dismiss as waste.
China has a fifth of the world's population, but only seven per cent of its arable land - mainly in the densely populated eastern strip. Although the land mass is huge - stretching from Korea to Pakistan, the USSR to Vietnam - only a small proportion of the land can be farmed, which is why over centuries the Chinese have become experts at using scarce resources. In a way they are the world's ultimate green consumers.
Take that paddy field, well stocked with fish, rice and ducks. The Chinese produce an extremely high yield, largely without recourse to chemicals since these are too expensive for most people. Instead, ducks catch pests before they attack the rice and their manure fertilizes the soil.
The central plains of China have been farmed continuously for thousands of years and you begin to wonder how they have stayed fertile. In the city, the reason becomes obvious. Waves of smell hit you as peasant women cycle past towing brown-encrusted oil drums filled with the precious produce of the city's latrines. Whereas we treat human excreta as something to be neutralized with chemicals and politely disposed of, the Chinese see it as one more resource. Outside every field you find a home-made latrine waiting for passing cyclists to contribute valuable fertilizer.
The conservation of scarce resources is a principle applied to everything. Plastic bags are just raching China and are still too precious to be readily disposable. More usual is the reed basket, carefully woven by peasants for carrying all kinds of vegetable produce to market. Heavy plastic or hessian sacks are treasured and used repeatedly.
It is the same with bottles. There is a deposit on every jar and bottle, and people take their own to shops for refilling. The first time I bought a soft drink at a roadside stall and began cycling away, I roused a despairing cry: the bottle was worth almost as much as the fizz in it.
In the home too, conservation is meticulous. Chinese cooking uses far less energy than Western boiling, baking and roasting: cutting food into slivers means that any dish is cooked in minutes. The cooking is especially economical in terms of meat. To make a multi-course banquet for six people, student friends brought round a piece of fatty meat about the size of a small steak - just enough to flavour the pile of cheap vegetables. Every part of an animal is used: chicken's feet, fish, eyes, offal and fat are great delicacies. Vegetables that Westerners often feed to livestock - such as rape - make lovely dishes.
The average Chinese household is also much more energy-efficient than its Western counterpart. Rooms are smaller, windows are fitted with makeshift insulation, and any waste is burnt in the stove. In place of our large pieces of coal, the Chinese burn briquettes shaped from coal dust. Homes are generally colder than in the West, and student dormitories are unheated: people habitually wear so many layers of clothing that they look almost round.
Chinese thrift is more from necessity than idealism; the world's concern about the hole in the ozone layer is bad news to the billion Chinese about to acquire a refrigerator per household.
But Chinese people do have an inbuilt respect for the natural balance of things. Notions of universal harmony are encoded in the religions of Daoism and Buddhism. And they are most apparent in traditional Chinese medicine, which uses non-chemical treatments like herbs, massage and acupuncture. Chinese doctors consider it incredible that Westerners release unknown side-effects on their children by feeding them drugs.
Traditional China is gentle with nature. And it is ironic that just as we are beginning to turn to it for answers to environmental questions, it has begun aspiring to Western ways.
Sue Robson has been working in China as an English teacher.