Does anyone want 1400 tonnes of toxic rubbish?

Sometimes the reporting media of the United Kingdom puts an unconscious spin on a news event which attempts to make the best of a bad job. One example is “the UK is working with Brazilian authorities to return more than 1,400 tonnes of toxic waste to Britain”. This was a quotation by an official employed by the Environment Agency about some ninety containers full of all kinds of rubbish that householders in some parts of the United Kingdom had carefully segregated and separated as required by their municipal authorities in the belief that it would be recycled and rendered harmless.

Instead of recycling and rendering harmless this dangerous waste (including such treasures as syringes, blood, used condoms, paper, old toys, domestic rubbish and some waste electronic rubbish) it was dumped into the containers and sent overseas to Brazil

Of course, The United Kingdom had no business sending rubbish to Brazil; to do so is against international law – in particular the Basle Convention on the Movement of Hazardous waste, which came into force in 1992. There are laws against this sort of thing and you might expect perhaps the odd bit of waste to be sent abroad in error, but sending 90 forty foot containers worth looks very much like a systematic attempt to avoid the financial costs of recycling and waste processing by someone.

The waste left Britain from the port of Felixstowe, where it was shipped to Santos, near Sao Paulo. It ended up in the region of Ibama.

The UK Environment Agency has warned that there may be unlimited fines if the culprits are caught. The Brazilians are naturally incensed that someone should abuse their country in this way. Apparently the waste will be returned to the United Kingdom, where no doubt the UK taxpayer will foot the bill for treating it.

The story that the UK was working with the Brazilian authorities to sort out this waste missed the point entirely. There are a number of questions about waste treatment that this episode raises:-

  1. Are waste export licences needed or is the UK so pleased to get rid of the stuff that there is minimal paperwork?
  2.  When waste is exported what arrangements are made to check the facilities at the receiving country so as to ensure the waste is properly handled?
  3. Is this being driven by the UK’s desire to avoid European Union fines for over using landfill, which misses the point of the EU Landfill Directive?
  4. Which local authority contracted with the company for the disposal of the waste and what due diligence was done before the contract was signed?

Someone will have to sort through t nhe waste forensically and if this is done we will be able to trace from whence it came and that should be the first step in establishing what happened, why it happened and making sure it does not happen again. That sorting will not be a pleasant job; apparently insect larvae have formed and by the time some of the mess gets back to the United Kingdom it will be in an advanced stage of decomposition.

The Brazilian Environment Agency has named two British companies as being responsible for the waste. Rather helpfully, the British media gave out that two of the suspected waste exporters are “owned by a Brazilian”, When something goes wrong in Britain it is often the fault of Johnny Foreigner.

In Britain we often criticise nations like Brazil for cutting down the rain forest, which are the lungs of the world and its most efficient store of much of the carbon that we in Britain have emitted since the industrial revolution. If some of our used syringes, blood bags, food, paper, condoms and the like ends up in ninety containers in Brazil we should be looking at ourselves very hard in the mirror and tighten up our procedures and controls so that our waste is genuinely recycled, not just dumped in another land.

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