UN Photo/Kibae Park

The Basel Convention (1989), the Rotterdam Convention (1998) and the Stockholm Convention (2001) are the three primary global treaties that address and regulate the transport of toxic waste between the countries of the world.  The U.S. government has signed all three of these treaties, but we’ve not ratified any of them. At this point, I would encourage the Trump administration, as well as whomever, wins the 2020 elections to attempt to work with the United Nations Environmental Program at addressing two major flaws with these 3 conventions and to wait to send these treaties to Congress for ratification until two major oversights within them are addressed.  


People who read the Afterimage Review column know that I usually advocate for allocating more funding for research in green technologies and I advocate for more stringent environmental legislation in the U.S. as well as throughout most of the rest of the world.  I also frequently point out that the U.S. government has a history of paying impressively little attention to some aspects of international law and international treaties dating back to the mid 19th century, so some of you may be surprised that I’m now writing an article in which I state that I feel that the U.S. should continue to wait to ratify the Basel Convention, the Rotterdam Convention as well as the Stockholm Convention.

 While these three conventions do address many of the issues relating to industrial waste and toxic waste which the countries of the world will have to address throughout the 21st, the 22nd and the 23rd centuries, there are two serious flaws with these three conventions, and given the current terms of these conventions, I believe that these conventions will likely cause as many problems as they will solve.  Specifically, these three conventions do not effectively address the transportation of toxic waste between countries when it is intended to be sent to recycling facilities, and these three conventions also fail to comprehensively address the shipping of radioactive waste between countries. 

These are not the reasons that the U.S. has not ratified these three conventions yet.  When the U.S. signed the Basel Convention in 1989, preserving the ecosystems of the world was not a high priority for the Bush I administration.  The Rotterdam Convention was a low priority for the Clinton administration, and the Stockholm Convention was a low priority for the Bush II administration, presumably because international treaties which are intended to address preserving the world’s ecosystems were not high on their agendas.

Technologies regarding recycling many kinds of toxic materials have advanced a lot over the course of the past 30 years.  Today, it is now necessary to allow materials to be shipped through some countries while they’re en route to recycling facilities in other countries.  One of the primary purposes of these three conventions was to prevent toxic colonialism.  Allowing for the shipping of containers which are carrying toxic materials to travel between countries is not toxic colonialism, and allowing for the transport of toxic materials to pass between countries will likely result in millions of more tons of materials being recycled each year.

These oversights in these treaties can be addressed through amendment or protocols, and I’d only encourage the U.S. to ratify these three treaties once these issues are effectively addressed.    

Toxic Waste- A Brief History

Toxic waste has been in existence since the beginning of the industrial revolution.  However, it was not until the 1960’s that modern chemists and biologists began to fully comprehend how various industrial pollutants effect ecosystems and numerous species throughout the world.

In the earliest years of the industrial revolution, toxic waste was transported by horse carts and steam ships.  The railroads soon followed, and companies had the option to transport industrial waste products by freight trains.  In the early decades of the 20th century, trucks became an option for transporting industrial waste products, and in the mid 20th century, air cargo became available.  Today, millions of tons of industrial waste are transported throughout the world via container ships, freight trains, air cargo as well as trucks every day.

From the mid 19th century through the mid 20th century, only a small handful of scientists were paying close attention to the biproducts and chemicals that factories in many industries were producing, and only a small handful of scientists were thinking about the effects that industrial pollutants have on ecosystems and species throughout the world.

During the first half of the 20th century, regulations regarding emissions from the transportation industry as well as industrial waste did exist in many countries, but the regulations were quite simplistic by modern standards because scientists did not yet fully comprehend the effects that toxic chemicals could have on ecosystems.

Our modern understanding of how industrial contaminants can impact ecosystems began in the 1960’s.  In the 1960’s, scientists began to scrutinize how industrial pollutants were spreading into air, clouds, rainwater, snow, soil, rivers, ponds, lakes, harbors, seas and oceans and scientists also began to pay much close attention to how industrial pollutants were damaging species of plants and animals throughout the world.

In the 1960’s, the departments of environmental protection, the environmental protection agencies and comparable agencies in national, state and local governments in countries throughout the world began to enact stringent regulations regarding the materials which can and cannot be used in transportation, agriculture and all industries.

As a result, factories today obviously do still produce toxic waste, but some of the most damaging chemicals have been eliminated.  While environmental regulations throughout the world have eliminated some of the most damaging biproducts of industrial growth, the human population of the planet earth continues to grow, and many credible statisticians believe that by 2050 the population of earth will likely reach 10 billion people.  

Therefore, while some of the most dangerous chemicals that were once prevalent in factory emissions are no longer produced, there will likely be more toxic waste produced each decade throughout the world because there will continue to be more factories, more trains, more airports, more airlines, more automobiles, more buses, and more roads throughout the world as the human population continues to grow.  Furthermore, space travel is still in its infancy, it is not yet known how many potentially toxic chemicals will be produced as biproducts of space travel.

In most countries now, there are stringent regulations regarding the disposal of toxic waste.  While an increasing number of materials are now recycled, there are still a number of materials for which no one has yet found a means to recycle.  Scientists throughout the world are currently researching how to recycle many different kinds of materials, and it is necessary to transport toxic materials between countries so that scientists can continue to research how to recycle them.

Toxic Colonialism And New Technologies In Recycling

 While all reliable political analysts and scientists agree that the UN needs to enact laws which will prohibit the practice of “toxic colonialism,” as I mentioned earlier, the current terms of these  conventions do not effectively address situations in which companies will be transporting toxic waste to other countries for reasons which are actually potentially healthy for the environment. Recycling numerous potentially toxic materials is now a multi- billion dollar industry worldwide.  This is becoming particularly relevant today, as an increasing number of people as well as businesses throughout the world are recycling obsolete phones, printers and computers each year.  It will continue to become increasingly necessary to ship some materials through some countries while the shipping containers which contain toxic materials are being sent to their final destinations throughout the course of the 21st century as scientists discover new ways to recycle numerous kinds of materials.

With Current Technologies, Radioactive Waste Will Remain Radioactive For Thousands Of Years

Neither the Basel Convention nor the Rotterdam or Stockholm Conventions effectively discuss the transport of radioactive waste between countries.  As of 2019, there are 193 UN member states. Do we want a facility which is designed for the long term storage of nuclear waste in every country in the world?  It would be far more beneficial to have all of the world’s nuclear waste stored in a small handful of facilities, with only a small handful of large facilities on each continent.

Radioactive waste is produced in every country in the world each year.  In countries which do not possess nuclear weapons and which do not have nuclear power stations, radioactive waste is produced by the medical and dental industries.  If each UN member state were required to have its own storage facilities, there would be at least 193 nuclear waste storage facilities throughout the world.  

There are a number of reasons that requiring each country to create its own nuclear storage facilities would create problems rather than solving them.  Designing and constructing facilities which can safely contain nuclear waste is a lengthy and expensive process. It takes several years to design such facilities, and facilities which store nuclear waste require constant maintenance.  The slightest leak can lead to widespread contamination very quickly. These facilities also require sizeable security teams to guard them. This is the 21st century, and there’s no shortage of hate groups, cults and terrorists who will want to steal radioactive materials to attempt to use them in manufacturing homemade weapons.  It would be far easier as well as safer for the countries of the world to store all of their nuclear waste materials in a small handful of large facilities than it would be for each of the countries of the world to construct their own facilities which are intended for long term storage of radioactive materials. 

Possible Future Protocols To These Conventions

 Why do these three conventions omit clear terms which would allow for the transport of waste between countries when it is intended to be transported to recycling facilities as well as radioactive waste?

Writing treaties is a complex process, and issues relating to toxic waste are also notably complex.  Representatives from many countries, each of whom has their own interests negotiate with each other while writing treaties.  I suspect that with the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions, the representatives who were writing these treaties had reached terms which worked for all of them, and discussing other issues would have further delayed the finalizing of the terms of these treaties. 

I suspect that there may be protocols to these conventions in future years which address the topics that these three treaties have not yet effectively addressed.  I would only encourage the Trump administration or our next President to send these conventions to Congress for ratification after the shortcomings in this treaty are addressed through future protocols or amendments to these conventions. 

The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions In The 2020’s And The 2030’s

President Trump has now been in office for nearly 3 years, and neither he nor anyone on his staff has mentioned any of these three treaties even once during any press statements since President Trump assumed office in January of 2017, so it seems unlikely that President Trump will consider sending any of these three treaties to Congress for ratification.  None of the Democrat candidates have mentioned any of these three treaties so far either, so these treaties are clearly not high priorities for the Democrats either.  

I do still want to look at what would happen if any U.S. President opts to submit any or all of these treaties to Congress for ratification at any time in the 2020’s.

We need to consider two possibilities: There is the possibility that the governments of the world will opt not to amend these treaties, and they may be sent to Congress in their current forms.  There is also the possibility that these treaties will be amended, and that one of our next Presidents may opt to send them to Congress for ratification after they’ve been amended.     

 Most of our current Federal and state laws regarding the transportation of toxic waste are already in compliance with the terms of these three treaties.  If these treaties are amended as I’ve suggested so that they will effectively address shipping toxic materials to recycling facilities in other countries as well as addressing issues relating to transporting radioactive waste, most of our current laws will still be compliant with the terms of these treaties.  So does ratification matter? Would ratification be a mere symbolic gesture?

 As I’ve mentioned, most of our domestic laws do meet the terms of these three conventions, however unless the U.S. ratifies these treaties our domestic laws could change at any time.  If enough Federal, state and local politicians want to replace some of our current laws regarding the transportation of toxic waste with less stringent regulations at some point during the course of the 2020’s or the 2030’s, there is nothing to prohibit them from doing so.  If the U.S. were to ratify these conventions, we’d be bound to ensure that transportation of toxic waste into as well as out of the U.S. will be done as safely as possible, according to present technologies.

 There would also be a symbolic value to the U.S. ratifying this convention.  Our ratification of these conventions would send a message to the rest of the world that we’re willing to be a participating partner with regard to environmental protection in the 21st century, rather than a country in which the government feels that ratifying treaties regarding the transport of toxic waste is not an important enough issue for our President to submit these treaties to Congress for ratification. 

The 2020 elections are now only 12 months away.  If anyone within the 2 major parties is looking closely at these three treaties, they’ve been notably silent about their plans so far.  The only party among the third parties which seems to be paying close attention to issues relating to industrial waste is the Green Party, and although the Green Party is intending to propose stringent regulations regarding industrial waste, I’ve not heard any of their potential candidates mention proposing working with the UNEP to address the issues that these 3 treaties have yet to adequately cover.   

We’ve learned from previous conventions which address international trade, international cargo and environmental issues such as the 1973 CITES Convention that a lot more can be accomplished throughout the entire world with regards to the protection of our environment and preserving ecosystems when more countries sign and ratify the international conventions which are intended to address these issues.  The processing, shipping and potential recycling of industrial waste is not an American issue, this is a global issue. These three treaties need to be amended so that they address the shipping of waste to any country in the world where various materials can be safely recycled and the issues regarding nuclear waste need to be addressed too.  This is part of the reason that the UNEP was created in 1972.  Our government needs to work with the UNEP to address these issues, and if these treaties are amended so that they do adequately address these issues, our government will need to ratify these three treaties.

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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