Both criminals and legitimate entrepreneurs sense handsome profits from this excess of hazardous waste, from steering a flow of harmful substances along the path of least resistance toward what they hope will be a final resting place. "I'd slash my wrists if I didn't think that there is enough greed in the world to find someone to take Philadelphia's trash," said one official of that city (Perks, 1986).
All too often, however, the waste ends up in poor communities, migrating within the United States from the industrial Northeast to the more rural South; or in Great Britain, from England to Wales. Similarly, on the world stage, hazardous waste from the industrialised nations frequently has a one-way ticket to the developing world. Some Africans have even equated the traffic in toxic waste to the slave trade, although the direction has been reversed: the toxic substances that the industrialised world wishes to discard now flow to the developing world.
More than 3 million tons of wastes were shipped from the industrialised world to less-developed nations between 1986 and 1988, according to the environmental organisation Greenpeace (Portney, 1991). Sometimes the deals were made with the approval of governments, sometimes not. The amounts of money to be earned from waste imports were so large that despite the health and environmental risks, some impoverished nations felt they could not refuse to enter this trade. The West African nation of Guinea-Bissau, for example, hoped to make $120 million a year, more than its total annual budget, by agreeing to store industrial wastes from other countries, until public protest over the hazards involved forced the government to back out.
A series of odysseys in the late 1980s first drew worldwide attention to the issue of waste exports. Ships laden with hazardous wastes were refused admittance by country after country and, with their cargoes of poison still aboard, sent back to roam the seas.
The gravest danger to less developed countries, however, stems not from vagabond ships carrying deadly cargo, but from the legal, routine shipments of "recyclable" wastes: mercury residue, lead-acid batteries, and other refuse from which valuable materials are extracted by low-paid Third World laborers and then reprocessed or sold for reuse. This extraction often takes place in plants filled with choking fumes and lead dust, where workplace safety rules and enforcement are far less stringent than those in the First World. Both the workers and the people living near these factories are threatened as a consequence of this legal recycling trade.
According to industry estimates, at least 70 million automobile batteries were discarded in the United States each year during the 1990s, a figure that translates to roughly 70 million gallons of sulfuric acid and more than a billion pounds of lead. Although the United States has one of the world's safest and most sophisticated systems for recycling its used batteries, anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of them end up dumped unceremoniously by the side of a road, thrown away with the regular garbage or just left in a garage and forgotten. Of the 80 percent or more that are recycled, a substantial number are sent overseas, where they are smashed apart, melted down in lead smelters like those in Brazil and poured into