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Toxic waste disposal: the European way

A US congressional committee survey has revealed that 93 percent of all the hazardous wastes generated by America's 50 largest chemical firms during the last 30 years has been disposed of by digging a hole out in the back yard of the manufacturer's site and dumping the stuff in.

The Europeans are 20 years ahead of the US by most estimates in the infant science of waste management. Land is scarcer and more precious to them. Their populations are more concentrated. And most Europeans accept a greater role than Americans do for government regulation in the interest of public health and safety. We are learning from them, and we'll need to continue doing so.

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Denmark now has the world's only nationwide chemical-waste disposal scheme. All over Denmark there are collection centers where industry and citizens bring their wastes. From these 200 collection points the toxic materials are shipped to a single central treatment facility where each year 50,000 tons are incinerated, ''detoxified,'' chemically neutralized, or solidified. The facility in turn produces the heat for the houses and shops of Nyborg, Denmark.

The British have developed a method of mixing cement with liquid wastes to permanently imprison toxic chemicals in solid concrete blocks that can safely be used as sub base for highways.

The French have developed a system of economic incentives (and disincentives or penalties) to encourage French industry to bring its wastes to incineration centers rather than dumping them on company property. And some French disposal facilities have become so efficient at recovering metals that they are selling the metals right back to the companies that brought in the wastes.

Dutch and German engineers have perfected ''at sea'' incinerators where some forms of waste can be burned with minimal effect on the sea water.

Japan is another industrial country with a high population density and a tradition of government/business partnership rather than adversarial tension. Japan has also moved to the forefront in the field of toxic waste disposal, following several incidents in the 1970s of chemical dumping resulting in the poisoning of fish and, subsequently, people. Japan's law regulating waste disposal is one of the toughest adopted in any country, with offending companies required not only to pay stiff fines and clean up the mess but also to pay medical damages and moving expenses for those wanting to relocate.

After the Love Canal disaster, Americans have finally developed an awareness and concern about proper handling of industrial wastes. Now we need to develop commitment and be willing to expend some effort and bear some costs.

Most important, we must establish a national policy concerning the disposal of toxic wastes. Like our world neighbors, we must make proper waste disposal a national concern -- before it grows to catastrophic proportions.

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We can learn much from those ahead of us in this field about economic incentives and disincentives; about promising new technologies; about organizing to get the job done; and about the most appropriate role for government in this critical enterprise of keeping our nest reasonably clean.

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