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Not in Whose Backyard?

REMEMBER the New York garbage scow that wandered the ocean like some latter-day Flying Dutchman? The scow that eventually had to return home with a cargo that all the perfumes of Arabia wouldn't have disguised?

Well, stench may make exported waste unwelcome, but toxicity sometimes doesn't. Despite general third- world resistance, some officials in poor nations accept hazardous waste for burial or ''recycling.'' To stop that, 65 nations signed an international convention banning transport of hazardous waste from developed nations to the third world. The only catch is that the ban has holes in it. First, the US Senate hasn't ratified it. Second, there's a temporary loophole for recycling. Third, some firms are resisting it as a costly restriction on trade. Now the European Community is campaigning to get the US Senate to ratify an amended convention that would ban all hazardous exports to poor nations by 1998.

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Some 98 percent of the 400 million tons of hazardous waste produced each year comes from developed nations. Slightly over 10 percent of that is shipped to the third world.

Most Americans are familiar with the cry of NIMBY - ''not in my back- yard.'' They're probably sympathetic to third-world NIMBY. But NIMBY is only a temporary salve - at home or abroad. Third-world nations are themselves producing increasing amounts of hazardous waste. That means finding more geologic structures distant from populated areas and leakproof.

But long-range solutions lie elsewhere. Technologically advanced nations are finding ways to (1) reduce toxic waste, and (2) neutralize more of what they do produce.

Many industries in the United States and Europe are already changing production methods to minimize pollutants. That trend should continue as CEOs find it helps the bottom line. Consumer shifts to ''green'' products and penalties for polluting are the main reasons. Environment hawks may be skeptical about neutralizing hazardous waste. But, in fact, quite a few promising technologies are appearing.

Among them: molten metal baths to change the atomic structure of heavy metal and nuclear waste; engineered bacteria to ''eat'' petroleum waste. It's useful to revisit hazardous- waste exports. But both the European Community and Congress should be concentrating on incentives to speed the shrinkage of such waste altogether. Not in anyone's backyard.

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