Scale of international traffic in hazardous waste becomes clearer

Official figures which have come the closest yet to providing an authoritative picture of the international traffic in hazardous waste have been issued by the OECD.1 They show that OECD countries exported at least 1.8 million tonnes of hazardous waste in 1990, slightly less than they imported. But the destinations of the exports remain unknown.

The OECD has been one of the leading influences on the development of international rules on transfrontier movements of hazardous waste since the mid-1980s. One of its initiatives came in 1991, when member countries agreed to submit annual returns on hazardous waste imports and exports.

The first figures, for 1989 and 1990, have now been published. The report stresses that they should be treated with caution because the 22 OECD countries have divergent definitions of "hazardous" waste. The extent of the trade is also understated because the UK and Germany do not require exports of waste intended for recovery - as distinct from disposal - to be notified. Imports into the USA are likewise not notifiable.

The figures show that 1.92 million tonnes of hazardous wastes were exported by OECD states in 1989, when five countries did not report data, while imports amounted to 1.52 million tonnes. In 1990, when only Luxembourg and Eire failed to submit returns, exports totalled 1.80 million tonnes, while imports rose to 2.15 million tonnes. The change is partly explained by the unification of Germany, which caused its notified exports to drop from 999,933 tonnes in 1989 to 522,063 tonnes in 1990.

Germany is the largest exporter. Second is Belgium, which exported 491,784 tonnes in 1990, although these figures were boosted by the inclusion of an unknown quantity of non-hazardous wastes in its figures. Other major exporters were the Netherlands (195,377 tonnes), Canada (137,818 tonnes), Switzerland (121,420 tonnes) and the USA (118,414 tonnes). Belgium appears to be the biggest importer, taking in 1.07 million tonnes of waste in 1990, although again these figures were distorted by non-hazardous wastes. Next were France (458,128 tonnes), the Netherlands (199,015 tonnes), Canada (143,757 tonnes) and Spain (82,269 tonnes).

But there are still large gaps in the figures. In particular, what cannot be determined from the report is how much of the waste exported by OECD countries goes to other OECD countries or to third states. Neither, in many cases, is it clear what type of disposal or recovery operation exported or imported wastes are destined for.

For example, the report shows that the disposal routes of 359,500 tonnes of hazardous waste exported by OECD states in 1990 were apparently known. These were dominated by incineration (39%), deposit on land (23%), and engineered landfills (15%). But disposal routes for another 65,614 tonnes were "not specified".

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