The Globalization of Garbage: Following the Trail of Toxic Trash

From February through May of this year, roughly 1,600 tons of "domestic and toxic trash" was imported from the English Suffolk port of Felixstowe, under the guise of plastic material for recycling. But when the containers-which were delivered to two ports in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul and one in Sao Paulo-were opened, they were found to contain domestic and toxic waste including used diapers, condoms, syringes, batteries, leftover food, chemical toilet seats, computer fragments, and old medicine.

"It was really frustrating to think that someone would actually send this to us," said Luis Carlos De Oliveira, a federal police officer at the Santos Port in Sao Paulo who inspected the containers personally. De Oliveira told Toward Freedom that not only was there hospital waste and bags of blood, but chorume or leachate, a foul-smelling gooey black substance "and that is only produced when you have organic waste," he said.

The toxic trash shipment violated international law under the Basel Convention, and the discovery of the containers sparked uproar in Brazil.

"Brazil is not the world’s dump," said Roberto Messias Franco, head of Brazil’s Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, IBAMA. Brazil fined five companies 408,000 Reais ($223,000 USD) each for importing the containers, including the multinational shipping companies Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) and Maersk Brasil Brasmar, which shipped the illegal trash. England’s Guardian newspaper reported that Britain’s Environmental Agency raided three properties and three men were arrested. Britain apologized and agreed to [accept] the trash back.

According to IBAMA, only eight containers remain, still in the Southern mountain town of Caxias do Sul, waiting to be transferred to the port at Rio Grande, near Brazil’s border with Uruguay. The other 81 containers carrying 1,477 tons of waste are now being shipped back to England and are scheduled to arrive later this month.

"For us at IBAMA, getting this trash out of here is the conclusion of our job. It’s a good sensation. We got the results we hoped for." said Ingrid Maria Furlan Oberg last week, regional head of IBAMA at the Santos Port in Sao Paulo, where 41 of the containers were shipped out in early August. "It is symbolic, because it shows that Brazil will not accept this type of behavior. Let it serve as an example for other countries."

This is perhaps precisely what others need. The English trash may have made headlines in both England and Brazil, but in much of the world, this is an all too common reality.

The Trail of Electronic Waste

Domestic, hospital waste, or even plastics aren’t of interest to most, but electronic waste is.

"Most of our e-waste is getting exported, and exported to developing nations," says Barbara Kyle, National Coordinator of the U.S. based- Electronics TakeBack Coalition. "I’m not talking to the refineries, the smelters in Sweden or something, I’m talking low road."

Despite a near universal international ban on exporting toxic or hazardous material, Kyle says that most of electronic waste from the United States ends up in China, India, Vietnam, or in up and coming African countries, like Ghana, and Nigeria.

"It’s very, very cheap to ship, and typically what’s getting sent is stuff that costs more money to take it apart here," says Kyle. "People don’t want to spend the money here, and over there-where people basically earn pennies an hour, essentially just bashing stuff open to reclaim the metals-they can still make the economics work for a TV or a monitor for a buck a piece maybe."

CBS’s 60 Minutes reported in its November 2008 special Following the Trail of Toxic E-Waste, that the illegal recycling e-trade has wreaked environmental havoc in China’s Guiyu region.

"Women were heating circuit boards over a coal fire, pulling out chips and pouring off the lead solder," read part of the written report. "Pollution has ruined the town. Drinking water is trucked in. Scientists have studied the area and discovered that Guiyu has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. They found pregnancies are six times more likely to end in miscarriage and that seven out of ten kids have too much lead in their blood."

The situation is just as bad in Ghana, where PBS’s recent Frontline expose, Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, filmed an area known as Agbogbloshie, where millions of tons of e-waste each year is pulled apart and dumped into endless fields of trashed electronics parts.

There are international laws against the shipping of hazardous material. Under the Basel Ban-an agreement that went in to effect in 1998-the world’s 29 wealthiest most industrialized nations are banned from exporting all forms of hazardous waste to the less developed nations. However, the ban is difficult to enforce and the United States has fought against it tooth and nail. Although the U.S. signed on to the Basel Convention in 1989 (the precursor to the Ban), it is one of only three countries that has never ratified it into effect. The chances of the United States agreeing to adhere to the Basel Ban are even less likely.

"Our government believes that the fact that this stuff has commodity value is more important than the fact that it’s very hazardous, or the fact that its illegal from the importing country’s point of view," says Kyle.

She likens the electronics recycling industry in the United States to the "wild west" where there is little to no regulation, the business model of many recyclers is export, and where most of the recyclers export at least some of what they get.

In response, U.S. organizations like the Basel Action Network (BAN) and Kyle’s Electronics TakeBack Coalition have helped to create the e-Stewards Initiative, where member electronics recyclers must pledge not to ship their recycling abroad to developing countries. Thirty-three recyclers have so far joined the program.

According to a recent BAN press release, beginning next year, the initiative "will become the continent’s first ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB) independently audited and accredited electronic waste recycler certification program that will forbid the dumping of toxic e-waste in developing countries, local landfills and incinerators; the use of prison labor to process e-waste; and the unauthorized release of private data contained in discarded computers."

They have also waged a campaign to convince electronics manufacturers and retailers to pledge not to ship their e-waste abroad. So far, Dell and Sony have jumped on board.

The steps offer important options for U.S. consumers looking to ensure that their old TV sets and leftover computers don’t end up polluting a dried up river bed halfway around the planet. According to the 2005 report, The Digital Dump, by the Basel Action Network (BAN), 75% of the exported e-waste is not easily recyclable or reusable, so it is dumped into landfills or burned. Much of this is the bulky plastic of old televisions, printers and other electronic devices.

Brazil Says No to Importing Garbage

But plastic also has varying degrees of quality. According to De Oliveira, the Brazilian companies that imported the British trash believed they were importing much higher quality plastic than is commonly found in most of Brazil. They were obviously mistaken.

Nor was it the first time that Brazil had unwillingly received a toxic shipment. IBAMA spokesperson Janete Portos says Brazilian prosecutors are still investigating the arrival of a hazardous international shipment of heavy metals that reached the Santos port in 2004, but "we had never seen anything like this," said De Oliveira.

"We only have one option and that is to return the containers to the country where they came from, because we want to import other things, not trash." said Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva at the International Organic Product and Agroecology Fair in Sao Paulo on July 23rd. "We don’t want to export our trash and we aren’t going to import the trash of others."

Brazil has been one of the most outspoken critics in Latin America against the import-export of electronic waste.

"We hear that Brazil doesn’t even want to take used equipment because they know that’s just how people cheat; that’s how they dump on countries, in sending their crap, supposedly for reuse," says Kyle.

Perhaps this is part of what Brazilian Environmental Minister Carlos Minc had in mind when he met with U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern on Tuesday, August 4th, to discuss the upcoming Climate convention in Copenhagen this December.

Brazil’s Folha de Sao Paulo reported that they also discussed possible measures to ensure that the British trash incident not be repeated.

Brazil is now considering possible modifications to federal legislation to more strictly punish such crimes, and of using X-ray equipment to identify material within the containers. But in much of the developing world, it’s business as usual with middle-men brokering the deal to get the toxic e-trash past customs.

With the United States looking to undermine the Basel Convention and Ban, there doesn’t appear to be any solution on the horizon.

"We are the absolute outlier from the rest of the developed nations of the world on this topic," says Kyle. "The rest of the world is covered by the Basel Convention, and the only other countries that haven’t ratified it other than us are Afghanistan and Haiti. So nobody should be taking our waste. It’s a violation even to accept our e-waste, so we’re violating all of those developing nation’s laws by sending the waste there."


Michael Fox is a South America-based freelance journalist, radio reporter and documentary filmmaker. He is co-director of the recently released documentary, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas. For more articles, reports or videos, visit his blog. Photo from