Toxic Assets

The Trafigura scandal is just one of thousands of cases of the rich world’s fly-tipping

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 22nd September 2009

It was revolting, monstrous, inhumane – and scarcely different from what happens in Africa almost every day. The oil trading company Trafigura has just agreed to pay compensation to 31,000 people in Cote d’Ivoire, after the Guardian and the BBC’s Newsnight obtained emails sent by its traders(1). They reveal that Trafigura knew that the oil slops it sent there in 2006 were contaminated with toxic waste(2). But the Ivorian contractor it employed to pump out the hold of its tanker dumped them around inhabited areas in the capital city and the countryside. Tens of thousands of people fell ill and 15 died(3). It is one of the world’s worst cases of chemical exposure since the gas leak at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. But in all other respects the Trafigura case is unremarkable. It’s just another instance of the rich world’s global fly-tipping.

On the day that the Guardian published the company’s emails, it also carried a story about a shipwreck discovered in 480 metres of water off the Italian coast(4). Detectives found the ship after a tip-off from a mafioso. It appears to have been carrying drums of nuclear waste when the mafia used explosives to scuttle it. The informant, Francesco Fonti, said that his clan had been paid £100,000 to get rid of it. What makes this story interesting is that the waste appears to be Norwegian. Norway is famous for its tough environmental laws, but a shipload of nuclear waste doesn’t go missing without someone high up looking the other way.

Italian prosecutors are investigating the scuttling of a further 41 ships. But most of them weren’t sunk, like Fonti’s vessel, off the coast of Italy; they were lost off the coast of Somalia. When the great tsunami of 2004 struck the Somali coast, it dumped and smashed open thousands of barrels on the beaches and in villages up to 10km inland(5). According to the United Nations, they contained clinical waste from western hospitals, heavy metals, other chemical junk and nuclear waste. People started suffering from unusual skin infections, bleeding at the mouth, acute respiratory infections and abdominal haemorrhages(5a). The barrels had been dumped in the sea, a UN spokesman said, for one obvious reason: it cost European companies around $2.50 a tonne to dispose of the waste this way, while dealing with them properly would have cost “something like $1000 a tonne.”(6) On the seabed off Somalia lies Europe’s picture of Dorian Grey: the skeleton in the closet of the languid new world we have made.

The only people who have sought physically to stop this dumping are Somali pirates. Most of them take to the seas only for blood and booty; but some have formed coastal patrols to stop over-fishing and illegal dumping by foreign fleets(7,8,9). Some of the vessels being protected from pirates by Combined Task Force 151 – the rich world’s policing operation in the Gulf of Aden – have come to fish illegally or dump toxic waste. The warships make no attempt to stop them.

The law couldn’t be clearer: the Basel convention, supported by European directives, forbids EU or OECD nations from dumping hazardous wastes in poorer countries(10,11,12). But without enforcement the law is useless. So, for example, while all our dead electronic equipment is supposed to be recycled by licensed companies at home, according to Consumers International around 6.6 million tonnes of it leaves the European Union illegally every year(13).

Much of it lands in West Africa. An investigation by the Mail on Sunday found computers which once belonged to the National Health Service being broken up and burnt by children on Ghanaian rubbish dumps(14). They were trying to extract copper and aluminium by burning off the plastics, with the result that they were inhaling lead, cadmium, dioxins, furans and brominated flame retardants(15). Tests in another of the world’s great flytips – Guiyu in China – show that 80% of the children of that city have dangerous levels of lead in their blood(16).

In February, working with Sky News and the Independent, Greenpeace placed a satellite tracking device in a dead television and left it at a recycling centre in Basingstoke run by Hampshire County Council(17,18). It passed through the hands of the council’s recycling company, then found its way first to Tilbury docks then to Lagos, where the journalists bought it back from a street market. Under EU law, used electronic equipment can be exported only if it’s still working, but Greenpeace had made sure the TV was unusable. A black market run by criminal gangs is dumping our electronic waste on the poor, but since the European directive banning this practice was incorporated into British law in January 2007, the Environment Agency hasn’t made a single prosecution(19). Dump your telly over a hedge and you can expect big trouble. Dump 10,000 in Nigeria and you can expect to get away with it.

If the mafia were to establish itself as an effective force in this country, it would do so by way of the waste disposal industry. All over the world the cosa nostra, yakuza, triads, bratva and the rest make much of their fortune by disposing of our uncomfortable truths. It suits all the rich nations – even, it seems, the government of Norway – not to ask too many questions, as long as the waste goes to faraway countries of which we know little. Only when the mobs make the mistake of dumping it off their own coasts does the state start to get huffy.

The Trafigura story is a metaphor for corporate capitalism. The effort of all enterprises is to keep the profits and dump the costs on someone else. Price risks are dumped on farmers, health and safety risks are dumped on sub-contractors, insolvency risks are dumped on creditors, social and economic risks are dumped on the state, toxic waste is dumped on the poor, greenhouse gases are dumped on everyone.

Another story that broke on the same day was the shifting, by Barclays, of £7bn of residential mortgage assets and collateralised debt obligations to a fund in the Cayman Islands(20). These were universally described by the media as toxic assets. Some traders also call them toxic waste. Everyone understands the metaphor even if they haven’t thought it through: the banks seek to dump their liabilities while clinging onto their assets. Perhaps it comes as no surprise to find that Trafigura also runs a hedge fund, or that Lord Strathclyde, leader of the Conservatives in the House of Lords, is a director(21).

That party, like New Labour, advocates the continuing deregulation of business. The Trafigura case, like the financial crisis, suggests that in business there are people ruthless enough to shut their eyes to almost anything if they think they can make money. Business without regulation is scarcely distinguishable from organised crime. Regulation without strict enforcement is an open invitation to mess with people’s lives. Tedious directives, state power and bureaucratic snooping – the interference that everyone professes to hate – are all that stand between civilisation and corporate hell.









7. ibid.












19. Environment Agency, by email, 21st September 2009.