The convention aims to limit the generation of hazardous waste, ensure that it is disposed of as close as possible to its source, and to limit international movements of such waste.
The convention covers materials if they both belong to one of the classes (such as clinical waste from hospitals, asbestos and some forms of chemical waste) listed in its Annex I, and have one or more characteristics (e.g. are explosive, flammable, toxic, or corrosive) listed in Annex III.
These kinds of waste pose environmental and health threats at their point of disposal and, in the case of spillages, during their journeys to disposal.
The convention promotes an approach called environmentally-sound management to limit threats linked to the production, storage and disposal of such waste throughout its entire life cycle.
The convention’s creation followed moves by industrialized countries to regulate waste disposal in the 1970s. This made the process more costly and led to companies exporting waste to other countries with less stringent regulations.
The result was that hazardous waste posed even greater threats to vulnerable communities and the environment, largely in developing nations.
Under the convention, trans-boundary movements of hazardous wastes can only occur if the exporting state notifies the importing one (which must give consent), and if the shipment is accompanied by specific documentation for its entire journey to disposal.
The convention does not cover radioactive waste, and is ambiguous about waste that is destined for recycling rather than disposal. There are, however, total bans on the export of hazardous waste from parties to the convention to non-parties.
In addition, an amendment to the convention, known as the Ban Amendment, makes it illegal to export hazardous waste from industrialized to least developed countries, even if it is for recycling.
The Ban Amendment will not enter into force until is has been ratified by 75 percent of the parties that adopted it (so far about half of the required number have do so).
Parties to the convention must also report each year on their production and movement of hazardous waste. The convention’s secretariat compiles all of this data into an annual report.
As with other multilateral environmental agreements, the Basel Convention is under continual development. Its subsidiary Protocol on Liability and Compensation was adopted in December 1999.
This creates rules for identifying who is liable for damage caused by accidental spills of hazardous waste during export, import or during disposal, and ensuring that compensation is made.
The protocol will only enter into force after 20 parties have ratified it. At the time of writing, only nine have (see list).
The treaty is one of many Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs). Its full title is the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. It entered into force on 5 May 1992.
At the time of writing, 172 countries are parties to the Convention. Of these Afghanistan, Haiti and the United States have signed but have not yet ratified it.
The Basel Secretariat is the official home of the convention and its website has plenty of information for journalists, including press releases, an irregular bulletin, and links to news stories that mention the convention.
A top independent source for journalists is Basel Action Network, a US-based nongovernmental organization that describes itself as the definitive source of information for journalists on ‘toxic trade’. It produces regular press releases and has a photo gallery that journalists can use.
BAN also maintains a list of contact details for each country’s national authorities.
The Earth Negotiations Bulletin provides daily reporting on negotiations under the Basel Convention.
CASE STUDY – Brazil rejects the UK’s waste
In 2009, more than 80 containers with over 1,400 tonnes of waste arrived in Brazil from the United Kingdom.
The contents were labeled as materials for recycling but were in fact a mix of household waste, including rotting food, and hazardous materials, including batteries, syringes, condoms and nappies.
Brazilian authorities stressed that the shipments were illegal under the Basel Convention, of which both it and the United Kingdom are parties. The discovery led to an international outcry, and British authorities acted to return the waste to the United Kingdom, and arrested three men who had been implicated in its export.
Basel Convention – official website
UNEP: A guide to Cooperation on the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions [PDF]
UNEP/Basel Secretariat: Minimizing Hazardous Wastes: A simplified guide to the Basel Convention [PDF]
The Chemical Conventions Handbook – Basel Convention
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