Waste Trade and Recycling Gives New Meaning to Going Dutch

First off, this posting has nothing to do with recent Spend Matters’ reporting on Dutch auctions -- though perhaps it should. According to Sunday’s New York Times "Rotterdam, the busiest port in Europe, has unwittingly become Europe's main external garbage chute, a gateway for trash bound for places like China, Indonesia, India and Africa." The article claims that "Exporting waste illegally to poor countries has become a vast and growing international business, as companies try to minimize the costs of new environmental laws, like those here, that tax waste or require that it be recycled or otherwise disposed of in an environmentally responsible way."

It appears as "Europe's strict new laws that place restrictions on all types of waste exports, from dirty pipes to broken computers to household trash" as cited in The Times, combined with "environmentalists in China and elsewhere have[ing] expressed rising concern about the large quantities of electronic waste ("e-waste") that wealthy countries continue to dump in the developing world, particularly in Asia" as reported by the The Worldwatch Institute, that smuggling waste has become a lucrative enterprise. The Times indicates "after Europe first mandated recycling electronics like televisions and computers, two to three million tons of electronic waste was turned in last year, far less than the seven million tons anticipated. Much of the rest was probably exported illegally ... [and that] while much of the international waste trade is legal, sent to qualified overseas recyclers, a big chunk is not. For a price, underground traders make Europe's waste disappear overseas."

That the Dutch have assumed policing illegal waste trafficking is an unfortunate economic externality that we can be grateful for. But the illegal trade is not an anomaly. As developed nations become more conscionable about the environmental impact of their vast quantities of rapidly consumed and outmoded electronic goods, they must move beyond simply legislating that these plastic, metal and otherwise toxic debris be 'responsibly disposed of'. "Paper, plastic and metal trash exported from Europe rose tenfold from 1995 to 2007, the [European Environmental Protection] agency says, with 20 million containers of waste now shipped each year either legally or illegally. Half of that passes through this huge [Dutch] port, where trucks and ships exchange goods around the clock."

To not incorporate a structured and planned means of disposal for electronic waste and other debris that contains toxic chemicals -- that according to The Times "are often dismantled by children at great cost to their health [in poorer countries]" -- as part of the environmental legislation is unconscionable. Why not address this problem as a kind of reverse matter of supplier visibility and perhaps even establish auctions for handling the waste disposal in advance so that the costs are knowable, anticipated and calculated into the cost of implementation?

William Busch

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