World Bank Chief Economist, 1991: Let’s move polluting industries to less developed countries

DATE: December 12, 1991
TO: Distribution
FR: Lawrence H. Summers
Subject: GEP

‘Dirty’ Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank
be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less
Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons:

1) The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends
on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From
this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should
be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country
with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load
of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should
face up to that.

2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial
increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though
that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted,
their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los
Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution
is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation)
and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent
world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.

3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons
is likely to have very high income elasticity. The concern over an agent
that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostrate cancer
is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive
to get prostrate cancer than in a country where under 5 mortality is
is 200 per thousand. Also, much of the concern over industrial atmosphere
discharge is about visibility impairing particulates. These discharges
may have very little direct health impact. Clearly trade in goods that
embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare enhancing. While
production is mobile the consumption of pretty air is a non-tradable.

The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more
pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons,
social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around
and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.

This is old, but I came across it and figured I’d better share. This type of thinking, while somewhat under “wraps” now a days still exist. The final paragraph is especially tasty: “The arguments against more pollution in LDCs could be […] used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization”

20/20 hindsight

From 1964, this video shows how to deal with trash in while in the beautiful Swedish archipelago – make sure it sinks to the bottom! Now, this seems like a pretty ridiculous idea to us in 2011, but was a fully acceptable environmental advice in 45 years ago… makes you think at what things they are going to laugh at in 45 years from now? (one thought: planting trees to offset the carbon from your flights…)

One video I’m not so sure I’d like Indian policy makers to see

Mike Biddle, here espousing a highly mechanized, technology heavy solution to recycling plastics uses all of one line to summarily dismiss any of the work that waste pickers and small-scale recyclers do. Clearly, he’s not spent much time around waste workers in India, probably he landed in Mumbai, spent an afternoon in Dharavi and then returned to his plush hotel in downtown. Of course, independent waste recyclers doesn’t quite jive if you want to be selling large-scale recycling plants to governments like India’s or China…

Building a compost plant, part 1

This is part 1 in series that I’m assuming will be extended with a couple of more entries as the next month goes by. As I’ve said previously, I’m currently in Bokaro Steel City, working together with my CEO on consulting a local NGO on building a compost plant.


Building a compost plant isn’t as easy as it might seem. First of all there are a number of questions that need to be answered – how many tons of waste per day should it handle? what is the organic content (vs. recyclables and other materials) of the waste? where do we have the land to build one? what kind of support do we have from the municipality? what are the funds available to build it? how should the design of the plant be to ensure best efficiency / lowest cost? what building materials to use? And so on and so on.


After a bit more than a week of work (albeit at a not too high pace – I’ll blog about Indian time-keeping shortly!), we’re now coming as far as that we have all the contractors in place, the land, the money and the design of the plant done, and the leveling of the ground has got underway. The plant will be built on a site next to the general dumpsite, which means that we don’t need to worry about any neighbors complaining (in case they’re not bothered by the dump site – I’m sure they won’t mind a composting site) and that space is ample.


Some tricky things we bumped into during the construction phase were trying to figure out a good design of the plant (none of us being construction engineers), finding the right materials and eventually getting the budget to be slim enough to fit our NGO partner.


Personally, I found one situation especially challenging. In India, one of the most commonly used materials for roofing is cement laden with asbestos. Asbestos cement is highly toxic, but very durable, fire-retardant and quite cheap. It’s by now forbidden in over 50 countries and would probably have been put on an international list of restricted materials were it not for Canada’s financial interest in asbestos mining. For the project – the most economic and simple option would be asbestos. Pragmatically, you could argue “this is not going to be the place where the workers are exposed to the most asbestos throughout their lives, and it’s an open area so there’s not going to be greatly increased exposure for the operators of the plants”. Arguing based on principle you would say “working with a sustainable venture means not creating built in risks that will be exposed when the asbestos eventually degrades and might create health problems as far as 20-30 years from now, the only way to stop asbestos from being used is not to buy it”.


I think I’m getting my position pretty clear by now – what’s yours?

Urban waste management


Mondays are garbage collection days on my street in Brussels and they are also a good day to think about sustainable practices for the coming week. Garbage in Brussels is collected in 3 differently coloured plastic bags (actually 4 but one is only for organic waste from household gardens). The three bags separates plastic packaging (blue), paper and cardboard (yellow) and all other waste (white). There’s a fine that can be imposed for sorting stuff incorrectly – however my street seems not to have bothered much about the potential for a fine, the street is usually only filled with white bags…

This illustrates one of the problems with sorting at source – that it can be hard to get the general population to sort out their garbage properly. My hometown of Södertälje achieved over 90% of recycling (that is only 10% going to landfill) by using a system with only two bags – green for organic and any other bag for other stuff. The system uses infrared light to sort out green from other bags and then a mix of automatic (vibrating drums, eddy currents and the like) and manual (people) sorting to separate the “other” material. Companies like Wastetec in the UK hopes this is the solution to UKs horrible recycling record.

If you like me, think waste management is more exciting than football, then a nice overview can be had over at BBC and a google on “solid waste management” brings up a lot of interesting articles, mostly related to projects in developed countries. For the full developing country perspective – World Bank has a lot of resources.