Basel Convention Essay

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One of the legacies of the industrial revolution has been the production of large quantities of hazardous waste, which over the last century has presented a serious challenge for disposal. Moreover, tightening of environmental regulation in industrialized countries in the late 1970s and early 80s led to a dramatic increase in the cost of disposing of hazardous waste. Producers and traders started looking for cheaper ways to get rid of “toxic” waste, such as shipping it to developing countries and to eastern Europe, which lack the technical capability, knowledge, and/or regulatory framework to treat this waste in an environmentally safe manner. Poorer countries were likely to accept exported wastes because their high international debt loads and weak economies positioned them poorly to reject any income-generating activities. As the problematic and unjust nature of the international toxins trade became better recognized, concern led to developing and implementing international controls. This culminated in the drafting and adoption of the landmark global Basel Convention, under the aegis of the United Nations. The Convention was adopted on March 22, 1989, by the Conference of Plenipotentiaries, which was convened at Basel (Switzerland) from March 20 to March 22, 1989.

Framework for Control

The Convention has set up a framework to control the “transboundary” movement of hazardous waste (hazardous waste can be toxic, poisonous, explosive, corrosive, flammable, ecotoxic, and infectious) across international frontiers with the aim of protecting human health and the environment by minimizing hazardous waste production whenever possible by using environmentally sound management techniques. This recognizes that a long-term solution to the stockpiling of hazardous wastes is a reduction in the generation of these wastes, both in terms of quantity and hazardousness. This means addressing the issue through an “integrated life-cycle approach,” which involves strong controls from the generation of hazardous waste to its storage, transport, treatment, reuse, recycling, recovery, and final disposal-keeping track of it from cradle to grave.

The main goals of the Basel Convention are to ensure that generation of hazardous waste is reduced to a minimum; to ensure that as much hazardous waste as is possible is disposed of within the country of their generation; to establish enhanced controls on exports and imports of hazardous waste; to prohibit transportation/shipments of hazardous wastes to countries lacking the legal, administrative and technical capacity to manage and dispose of them in an environmentally sound manner; to cooperate on the exchange of information and technology transfer; and to work toward the harmonization of standards, codes, and guidelines.

These objectives can be achieved through factors such as active promotion and use of cleaner technologies and production methods; further reduction of transportation of hazardous wastes; prevention and monitoring of illegal traffic of hazardous waste; improvement of institutional and technical capabilities; helping to build up the capacities of developing countries and countries with economies in transition to deal with hazardous waste more effectively; and further development of regional and sub-regional centers for training and technology transfer.

The Basel Convention was adopted in 1989, but it did not come into force until May 5, 1992, when the Convention was ratified by 20 countries. As of February 2004, 158 countries had ratified the Basel Convention. Nations that have ratified the Convention are allowed to ship hazardous wastes to and from countries who are parties to the Convention, but not to countries or through countries that have not ratified it. The Convention permits an exception to this requirement if a separate bilateral agreement covers relations with a given trading partner that is not a party to the Convention. Article 11 of the Basel Convention allows parties to the Convention to develop such a bilateral agreement as long as the agreement reflects the environmentally sound management practices of wastes.

To highlight the scope of trade in hazardous wastes and hazardous recyclable materials: in 2002, Canada exported 340,000 tons of hazardous waste, primarily destined for northeastern and central United States. In the same year, Canada imported 423,000 tons of hazardous waste, 97 percent of which originated from the United States. Approximately 46 percent of imports and 70 percent of exports were destined for recycling.

In spite of huge volumes, there are enough Action Networks to monitor illegal activities. One of the cases reported in 2006 was the Clemenceau – a defunct aircraft carrier laden with asbestos-being exported by the French Government to India. It was recalled, however, after a French Court ruled that France was not abiding by the established rules under the Basel Convention. The International Maritime Organization is also developing a new convention on “International Convention for Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships,” and it is felt that it should be further strengthened to be at least as strict as the Basel Convention.


  1. Julie Bunn, To Trade or Not to Trade?: The Basel Convention and the Transboundary Movement and Disposal of Hazardous Wastes, (Georgetown University, 1997);
  2. Krueger, “The Basel Convention and the International Trade in Hazardous Wastes,” Yearbook of International Co-operation on Environment and Development 2001102 (2001);
  3. Katharina Kummer, International Management of Hazardous Wastes: The Basel Convention and Related Legal Rules (Oxford University Press, 2000).

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