One 65-metre nondescript Chinese boat bobbing in Hong Kong's harbour with piles of white plastic rubbish littering its decks might not seem like much of a cause celebre. But the extra political and historical baggage it carries could turn it into the centre of a worldwide row - or a co-ordinated effort to clean up a dirty global trade. The Min Hai 451, a Chinese-owned vessel which arrived on July 2, is the first public sighting in Hong Kong of a trade that green groups have been saying for years is growing and dangerous: the sale from developed to developing countries of waste. The developing countries are paid good money - in their terms - for taking from the developed nations dangerous or potentially dangerous stuff they (the developing countries) do not have the facilities or knowledge to handle. Green groups tell tales of 'recycling' factories where children pull the lead out of lead-acid batteries by hand, and where women stir burning plastic in open vats, breathing in deadly dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyl vapours. The environmentally-correct countries of America and Europe have brought in strict rules banning incinerators and landfills in many urban areas; the result on the other side of the world is people digging in landfills with their bare hands to retrieve things like used syringes. 'Disposal costs in the US have become so high and in many cases local authorities have prohibited the building of incinerators or landfills in their areas,' says Friends of the Earth (FoE) campaigner Lisa Hopkinson. South American countries woke up to the problem before Asia did, meaning what went south from the US now comes west to Asia. Hong Kong is thought to be one of the world's biggest transshipment ports for waste, according to Anne Dingwall of Greenpeace, which has started collecting customs figures for China after a nine-year campaign against waste traffic in the West. Hong Kong's environmental protection department argues, and FoE accepts, that when such waste is handled properly, trade in metal scrap, waste paper, textiles and plastics helps to conserve resources. Hong Kong imports and exports of non-hazardous waste for recycling have leapt 50 per cent in the last two years to 2.5 million tonnes in 1994 and just over three million tonnes in 1995, Trade Department figures show. 'We have no idea how many traders there are,' says principal environmental protection officer Dr Ellen Chan Ying-lung. Indeed, the Environment Report 1995 argues that new trade controls being placed on hazardous waste such as chemicals and heavy metals should not be extended to non-hazardous waste such as plastic 'to avoid any unnecessary interference with existing international trading operations'. 'Hong Kong itself has been exporting waste lubrication oil and metal sludges to places such as China where they have legitimate recycling facilities,' said Dr Chan. The problems come when the facilities are not sufficient or non-existent and it is the badly-paid workers or local residents who suffer. Mainland magazine China Environment News estimates that 3,700 tonnes of household waste is shipped to developing countries every day. Unless sorted, it is uneconomic to deal with and usually ends up dumped. The magazine describes a township in Zhejiang province where there are 333 plastics recycling workshops. Apart from the people stirring the open vats of molten plastic giving off lethal fumes, the plants dump 50,000 tonnes of untreated polluted waste water every day. And one of China's biggest foreign rubbish importers is Hualong Chemical Corp in Nanchang city, which has two dumps covering 19.6 hectares. Waste is sorted by hand, with no gloves or masks, for about 12 yuan (HK$11) for 50 kilograms of waste sorted a day. In the present case, the Min Hai picked up 200 tonnes of plastic in Hong Kong after delivery from the US in May. It took it to Fuzhou port in China, ostensibly for recycling. But the Fuzhou port authorities rejected it because it was contaminated with domestic waste and so unrecyclable, and sent it back after a month's prevarication. Both the Chinese and the Hong Kong traders claim they have not got what they paid for, and the Hong Kong firm, Chiang's Brothers, is demanding that the US exporter take it back. The US Consulate, asked to look into the matter by Secretary for Planning, Environment and Lands Bowen Leung Po-wing, has asked Washington and the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate. No one may have broken any laws. But even so, 'the US has a moral obligation to take it back', says Dr Chan. The export of hazardous waste, such as medical or chemical waste, lead batteries, or electronics parts that contain dangerous heavy metals, is becoming more controlled under a United Nations convention. But waste such as this plastic, which is not hazardous in its raw form, does not come under the convention, despite the hazards it may cause when mismanaged. 'Recycling used to be regarded as a green industry, but it's really very polluting,' said Greenpeace Japan chief John Willis. Burning plastic gives off gases and produces a dangerous concentrate of cancer-causing polychlorobiphenyls in ash, which then has to go to a specially designed landfill; 'you are transferring it to poisonous gunk in the ground or poisonous gunk in the sky', he said. In the last few months, China has publicised various shipments of US waste. In April, the State Environmental Protection Bureau reported finding 640 tonnes of medical rubbish including disposable syringes and used surgical gloves among a consignment labelled as recyclable paper at the Beijing Zhiqiang Fibre Factory in Pinggu county. And in June, it asked for US help in dealing with nearly 80 tonnes of what it termed highly radioactive waste sent from Houston, Texas, by US exporter Material Re-Sources Inc - a consignment that Material Re-Sources said was radioactive but within safety standards. Coming as it did during the time when the US threatened copyright sanctions against the mainland, much of the Chinese public outrage could be put down to propaganda. But it also followed new laws brought in on April 1, removing licensing of hazardous waste imports from the local to the central authorities and raising the fines to a maximum of one million yuan for breaking the rules. The National Environmental Protection Agency has told Hong Kong it will not be issuing any licences for now, effectively banning such imports. The US Consulate in Hong Kong seemed slow on the uptake over the Min Hai 451, only beginning to become involved after receiving an official request for help a week after the ship arrived: the four-day holiday for Independence Day intervened. Figures indicate the US is the world's largest hazardous waste exporter - about three million tonnes a year, of which most comes to Asia, according to FoE. But it is not the only culprit. 'The US and Japan have sent lead batteries to India where women and children pull the lead out and die from it, but it's called recycling,' said Mr Willis. The US appears to be dragging its feet over ratifying the Basel Convention on Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, drawn up in 1989, which required participating countries to issue import and export permits. Although it was a founder signatory, seven years later it has not put the provisions into its home laws, rendering its signatory status meaningless. 'At the moment all they have are some weak laws by the Environmental Protection Agency. Why is the US stalling?' asks Hong Kong FoE chief Mei Ng Fong Siu-mei. She has demanded a date by when the US will ratify the convention in a letter to US President Bill Clinton and the US Congress. And remarks by a US State Department spokesman that the medical waste case had nothing to do with the US Government and 'those who let it in [the Qingdao port authorities] should be responsible' have done nothing to help matters. Among other shipments Greenpeace has found are two 12-metre containers of computer waste going from Australia to the Philippines. It was listed as 'mixed electronic scrap'. 'It is extremely hazardous waste to process,' with chlorinated compounds and rare metals which can produce toxic chemicals when treated, the group said. In 1993 Hong Kong exported 29,000 tonnes of hazardous-waste lubricating oil and 2,000 tonnes of metal sludge for recycling abroad. The territory is currently amending the Waste Disposal Ordinance to bring it into line with the Basel Convention. Exporters will have to show the import approval from the destination to prove there are facilities there to handle it, says Dr Chan. Now that China has said it will accept no more hazardous waste, exporters will have to look to other markets that it already uses, including Taiwan, Singapore and others, or treatment at the Tsing Yi chemical waste treatment centre, she says. 'There are other ways of disposing of it, including stabilising it and placing it in a landfill. China's move is not a problem, although their costs might be cheaper.' Transshipments, she says, are the job of the importer and exporter to check. Customs can do spot checks of containers in port 'but if they don't let us know it's very difficult', she admits. And FoE says it's not the laws but the enforcement that matters. Customs does not have the staff to check the thousands of containers that pass through each day to ensure they are really what their labels say they are. And Dr Chan says there will be no new Environmental Protection Department staff to handle the upgraded waste ordinance, just redeployment. The answer, say the green groups, is to produce less waste, particularly plastic, and treat it at home rather than giving it to someone else to deal with. Demanding that the producers deal with it, as governments have done in Europe, could be an answer. 'Bang, all of a sudden they found a solution - they decided people didn't need such a lot of packaging after all,' said Mr Willis.