Rich countries' toxic waste overwhelming poorer nations: UN

Hazardous chemicals, old computers and toxic waste from the West, Japan and China are piling up in poor countries which lack the resources to recycle or dispose of them safely, UN officials say.

Environmentalists, African leaders, want tighter restrictions

The world's poorest nations can’t cope with huge backlogs of toxic waste sent for disposal by rich countries with tougher environmental laws, United Nations officials said Wednesday.

Katharina Kummer Peiry, who administers the Basel Convention, an international treaty governing hazardous waste disposal, said dangerously high stockpiles were building up in African, Asian and some Latin American countries.

Rich countries were dumping everything from poisonous chemicals to electronic waste from computers and televisions, and poorer nations' recycling industries were increasingly unable to process the waste, Peiry said, blaming a "lack of interest and lack of resources on the issue at all levels."

Her warning came as delegates from as many as 170 countries gathered on the Indonesian island of Bali to discuss how to strengthen the UN-administered Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, adopted in 1989.

The extent of the problem was illustrated in 2006, when 500 tonnes of chemical sludge from heavy industry was dumped around Ivory Coast's main city of Abidjan, killing at least 10 people and sickening tens of thousands more. The waste came from a tanker chartered by the Dutch company Trafigura Beheer BV, which took the sludge to Africa after disposal costs in Amsterdam were deemed too expensive.

The ship found a local company in Ivory Coast that agreed to take the waste. But it lacked proper disposal facilities and allegedly dumped the waste around the city at night. Trafigura has agreed to pay about $240 million to the Ivorian government but has denied responsibility for deaths or injuries.

Africa hard hit, can't cope with own waste

"There is a need to reduce the export of toxic waste into Africa," said Dr. O.O. Dada, director of Nigeria's Department of Pollution Control and Environmental Health. "It's causing a lot of health problems, environment problems. The region is wondering why we have to do this when we have our own problems."

Critics say the Ivory Coast case highlights the limitations of the convention.

Although it requires a country to seek the consent of another government when exporting waste and allows a country to ban the import of waste, it stops short of an outright export ban.

Such a blanket prohibition is likely to be debated in Bali on Thursday when environment ministers begin discussing the problem.

Opponents, including the U.S., say a ban would be unfair to developing countries that have established environmentally sound recycling industries.

But supporters, including the European Union, say it would ensure exporters take responsibility for their own hazardous waste.

With files from the Associated Press