World Bank Bankrolls Global Air Pollution

This weekend marks the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank group in Washington, D.C. While protesters are gathering by the thousands, two environmental groups have released a report documenting the hypocrisy of World Bank policies toward funding incinerator-based waste-management projects.

The report, entitled "Bankrolling Polluting Technology: The World Bank and Incineration," was released on Sept. 25 by Essential Action and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives/Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA). It details the extent to which the World Bank approves funding for incinerator-based projects, even while it promotes the U.N. Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

The Stockholm Convention, ratified in 2001, is a U.N. treaty that requires nations to minimize POPs with a goal toward their eventual elimination. Among the 12 POPs named in the treaty are dioxins and furans, chemical byproducts that are released in large quantities during waste incineration.

Incineration has been used for decades as the magic-bullet solution to disposing of otherwise persistent waste materials. However, as scientific studies on burning waste have shown, burning toxic wastes serves only to concentrate and distribute POPs in the long run, making them all the more deadly even while they are presumed to be removed.

"The World Bank doesn't have any clear reason to fund incinerators, and they need to get with the times: incinerators are a bad investment, a failed technology, and they create massive pollution." So says Stacy Malkan of Health Care Without Harm, an international environment and health organization.

Dioxins, for example, are widely recognized as the most toxic substance on the earth. Not only do they cause cancer, immune system damage, and many other reproductive and developmental problems, dioxins are known to accumulate in the fatty tissues of organisms and are not digested over time, meaning they end up in much of the food we eat, and then remain in our bodies. As a byproduct of manufacturing products containing chlorine, dioxin is an unnecessary and preventable toxic waste, and is the focus of considerable international attention. Poly-vinyl chloride, or PVC, is targeted as a primary producer of dioxin.

It has been estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other groups that incinerators are responsible for 69 percent of worldwide dioxin release. In the U.S., the EPA in 1993 labeled incinerators as the nation's leading source of dioxin pollution and urged the promotion of other ways to dispose of toxic wastes.

The international community is not ignorant of the dangers of incinerating toxic waste. In 1999, the Philippines passed the first national ban on incineration, and incinerators are banned in parts of Chile.

Despite all the available data on the hazards, the World Bank proposed a "full-scale dioxin factory" in India in 1996: a PVC plant with a incinerator next door to burn the waste. Only after massive public opposition to the project did the World Bank in 1996 placed a private, non-binding moratorium on incinerators in India.

While the World Bank considers incinerator technology good enough for developing countries, its officials draw the line when it comes to their home turf. In Sept. 1999, the New York Times reported on the construction of an incinerator project in Idaho, just upstate (and upwind) from Yellowstone National Park and Jackson, Wyoming. Residents of Jackson fought to prevent construction of the incinerator with generous help from local residents -- including a $50,000 gift from World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn.

Safe, cheap alternatives to incinerating hazardous waste are easily implemented. For the most part, separation of waste can reduce large amounts of waste that would otherwise go to incinerators. Medical waste, for instance, which is often sent to incinerators as a lump sum, consists primarily of waste that is no different from standard household waste and can be recycled or composted. The remaining toxic wastes, from plastic IV and blood bags and tubing to syringes and other sharps, can be sterilized with autoclaves and other non-polluting methods, instead of incinerating the plastics and releasing dioxins into the atmosphere.

In 2001, with the ratification of the Stockholm Convention, the World Bank issued an environmental mission statement that stated among its goals to reduce global "exposure to indoor and urban air pollution ... and toxic chemicals."

Despite this commitment to public health, the World Bank has approved funding for no fewer than 26 incinerators since 2001, including two projects funded within a month of the Stockholm Convention's ratification.

When asked to comment on its seemingly contradictory policies, a World Bank officer who asked not to be identified, stated, "The World Bank doesn't promote incineration."

Responding to concerns about the Stockholm Convention and the Bank's subsequent funding of incinerators, the officer urged all countries to ratify the Convention, as the Bank would then be compelled to follow the Convention as well. Until then, he said, "The Bank must work within the economic and environmental equation of each country to determine which method works best."

For more information or to take action, visit No-Burn.org.

Matt Wheeland is an AlterNet Fellow.

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