Ban on Australian waste sets precedent

The Government has refused a request from the Australian authorities to export hazardous waste to the UK. The decision is the first in which it has invoked the 1989 global Basel Convention on transboundary shipments of hazardous waste to ban waste from a particular country, and looks to have set a precedent for future UK policy on waste imports from developed nations.

The decision in the Australian case was announced quietly by Environment Minister David Maclean in a parliamentary answer on 9 June.1 It followed a request from Australia's Department of the Arts, Sports, Environment and Territories for a bilateral agreement under the Basel Convention.

The Convention, which came into force on 5 May, imposes a general prohibition on trade in hazardous wastes between parties and non-parties. Australia is a party to the Convention, but the UK will not ratify until an EC Regulation on transboundary movements of hazardous wastes is adopted. A bid to reach agreement on the Regulation at the EC Council of Environment Ministers in May foundered on French objections to the scale of the waste trade into France (ENDS Report 208, p 35 ).

However, Article 11 of the Convention goes on to provide for parties and non-parties to enter into bilateral agreements permitting trade in hazardous waste between them, and it was such an agreement which the Australian authorities were seeking from the UK.

The move followed an official decision not to authorise a high-temperature incinerator in Western Australia. Two Australian firms subsequently received permits to export more than 1,000 tonnes of waste, including polychlorinated biphenyls and pesticide residues, to the UK. The firms involved were Carpentaria, the local agent for ReChem International, and Brambles, part-owner of Cleanaway.

On 9 June, however, Mr Maclean announced that the Government had rejected the request for a bilateral agreement. He did not elaborate on the decision, but the thinking behind it had already been spelled out by junior Environment Minister Tony Baldry in an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on 22 May.

The UK, he said, "is opposed in principle to the continuing import of hazardous wastes from developed countries. In principle, imports of such waste should continue only in respect of developing countries."

The extent to which a precedent has been set remains to be seen. The UK has argued successfully for the principle of national self-sufficiency in waste disposal capacity to be written into the EC Regulation, but decisions on imports from EC countries once the Regulation is adopted may be taken initially on a case-by-case basis. It remains uncertain what the final text will say about imports from the EFTA countries.

This issue is likely to be crucial to ReChem, Cleanaway and other waste import businesses because the vast majority of the UK's imports originate from EC and EFTA states (see table ).

At least until the EC Regulation is adopted, it is likely that the UK would now refuse a request for a bilateral agreement with an EFTA country.

It is also pretty clear that any developed country outside the EC and EFTA will not be allowed to export hazardous waste to the UK. In recent years, Canada and the USA as well as Australia have sent small quantities of hazardous waste to the UK. Neither has ratified the Convention, but once the UK does so it will be in a position to impose a general prohibition on the UK's waste trade with them.

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