Hazardous Waste

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 5. June 2011 - 20:12
e-learning centre on sustainable development


Heading: Environment    Topic: Hazardous Wastes

Overall, industrialized countries generate more waste than they wish to dispose of within their own boundaries. To prevent an international trade in wastes that would force developing countries to choose between poverty and poisons, the Basel Convention to control trade in hazardous wastes and their disposal was agreed in 1989. But as industries producing hazardous wastes spread, and regulations controlling waste disposal are tightened, the problems with hazardous wastes have spread and taken on new forms. Transboundary movements and dumping have increased in South Asia (UNEP, 1996), in Eastern and Central Europe, and in the CIS (Gourlay, 1995). In 1992, Poland intercepted 1,332 improper waste shipments from Western Europe alone, and such cases soared by 35% in the first half of 1993, which should give an idea of scale of the problem in less developed countries (Coll, 1994). There are about 100,000 tons of obsolete and unused pesticides in developing countries, with 20,000 tons in Africa alone that will cost $80 million to clean up (FAO, 1998). The threats to health, water supplies and the environment from these and other dumped toxic chemicals are serious. The Basel Convention was strengthened in 1995 to ban exports to non-OECD countries, but it will take time, resources and strong governmental commitment to achieve effective implementation.

Among the under-estimated hazardous waste sources is the military, often because it keeps its activities secret. As military tensions diminish and disarmament agreements are implemented, there has been a growing recognition of the enormous problem with the disposal of obsolete weapons, particularly nerve gas and chemical weapons stockpiles and nuclear weapons, which were never designed with safe disposal in mind. The combination of explosives and highly dangerous chemicals, often deteriorating and becoming increasingly unstable, makes dismantling such weapons, neutralizing their contents, and even transporting them to disposal facilities, both extremely expensive and environmentally risky. The US alone has over 30,000 tons of chemical weapons whose disposal could cost at least $12 billion (Smolowe, 1996). More than 50 ocean and inland lake sites across the US contain explosive items, and harbours and beaches at the site of old battles throughout the world are riddled with unexploded bombs (Knight, 1998).

While Russia has never made any formal admission, there is evidence that the Soviet Union dumped 150 000 tons of mustard agent and other chemical weapons in the Barents and Kara Seas between 1945 and 1982. It is unlikely that anything more than local damage resulted, as chemicals break down in seawater. However, the water is close to freezing temperature, and arsenic is more persistent. Given the enormous investment in armaments around the world, the problem of military waste can only increase. (MacKenzie, 1998)


Coll, Steve. 1994. "Global Economy Faces the Global Dump". International Herald Tribune, 24 March 1994.

Gourlay, Ken.1995. "A world of waste". People & the Planet, vol 4, number 1, 1995. p. 6.

FAO, Press release, 2 March 1998. http://www.fao.org/docrep/v8419e/v8419e01.htm

Knight, Jonathan. 1998. Quoted in "Bombs Away". New Scientist, 13 June 1998, p. 6.

MacKenzie, Debora. 1998. "Plumbing the depths of the Cold War". New Scientist, 14 February 1998.

Smolowe, Jill. 1996. "Chemical time bombs." Time, 12 February 1996.

UNEP. 1996. Sub-regional Consultation on the Preparation of UNEP's Global Environment Outlook (GEO 1) Report, Kathmandu, July 1996.

Based partly on materials originally prepared for UN System-wide Earthwatch

Article last updated 4 August 1999

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Last updated 8 September 2010