Q. I have heard that certain countries "export" their garbage. Rather than dump it anywhere on their own territory, they ship it to other countries where they have contracted to deposit it instead. Then it becomes that other country's problem! Is this true?

- Bayley, FL

A. It's true, and although the typical (or even fairly adventurous) traveler never sees the results, you can view them in videos such as this one (created by the Philippine Community Fund), which shows families living atop vast garbage dumps near Manila. Thousands of them occupy makeshift shanties on each dump, foraging for recyclables to use or sell.

Western countries have been exporting their garbage since the 1970s, with varying degrees of legality. It's hard to gauge the environmental toll overall, but now and then we'll hear about shockers such as when a Dutch-registered tanker, the Probo Koala, deposited hundreds of tons of toxic sludge at seventeen sites in the Ivory Coast in August 2006, causing widespread illness and at least ten deaths.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was negotiated under the United Nations Environment Program in 1988, severely limiting the international transportation of hazardous waste. The United States has signed but not ratified the Basel Convention, and groups such as the Seattle-based Basel Action Network are especially incensed about how much American "e-waste" — discarded computers and other electronic equipment — is exported to China, India and Pakistan, where its components (such as phosphor dust and lead) contaminate water, soil and air. Locals put their health and water supplies in danger by breaking apart and burning wires and circuitboards, then washing them in rivers and other public waterways to extract valuable substances.

So when rich nations export their trash, developing nations get a new source of cheap raw materials — but at great cost to their own health and to the environment. As Chinese journalist Tang Hou puts it: “China is the world's second largest consumer of plastic; one ton of synthetic resin costs 11,000 yuan (around US$1,420), but a ton of imported plastic can be bought for as little as 4,000 yuan (around US$515). The work of sorting the waste is hard and dirty, but for many it is more lucrative than the alternative."

Story by Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008