From Trash Trade to Waste Colonialism: A Conversation with Simone Müller

A barge containing garbage is floating on a river. In the background, there are buildings and cityscape.

I spoke with Simone M. Müller, Heisenberg Professor for Global Environmental History and Environmental Humanities at the University of Augsburg in Germany, about her new book, The Toxic Ship: The Voyage of the Khian Sea and the Global Waste Trade, which appears in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series that I edit with the University of Washington Press. In our conversation, Dr. Muller describes the amazing journey of the Khian Sea, which left Philadelphia in 1986, loaded down with ash from the city’s trash incinerators, and fruitlessly sought a place to dump its wastes in the Global South. The Khian Sea’s journey not only contributed to the globalization of a burgeoning environmental justice movement, but it also inspired a new global regime for regulating the trade in toxic wastes. A remarkable study in “garbage imperialism,” The Toxic Ship also plumbs the transnational complexities of toxicity in an unequal world.

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Transcript Highlight

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Paul Sutter: Your book focused on the Khian Sea in particular. I wonder if you could just give us a sort of an overview of the ship’s journey because that’s such an essential part of your book.

Black and white photo of a woman with short hair and glasses
Dr. Simone Müller is a professor at the University of Augsburg. Photo by Pia Wimmer, 2023.

Simone Müller: The ship really has had a fascinating voyage. So you have to imagine a ship that leaves Philadelphia in the fall of 1986, and it’s loaded with about 15,000 tons of incinerated ash.

Then it spends about two years or more than two years roaming the world’s oceans trying to find a place that is willing to import its cargo. It sets out under the premise of going to the Bahamas and then disposing of the material in the cargo there. But the issue is one actor after the other in that waste transaction pulls out, and so they are short of importers.

What we end up seeing is how that ship first tours around the Caribbean; it tries to get back to Philadelphia, but the city says, no, you can’t dock here. And then from Philadelphia, it crosses the Atlantic in a spectacular flight. So by that time of the story, the captain just takes—or seems to take—the story into his own hands. He is escaping the U.S. Coast Guard. He’s escaping environmentalists who by that time are also trying to follow the ship. And he just takes it across the Atlantic, first stocking in several countries in WestAfrica, and then into the Mediterranean trying to get rid of it.

The ship went to what was then Yugoslavia, and also through the Suez canal it toured a little bit of Southeast Asia before eventually, more than two years after the ship had left Philadelphia, appeared in Singapore and its holds were empty.

Midway through, we also see the ship changing names from the Khian Sea to the Felicia to the Pelicano and eventually San Antonio because it becomes a cat and mouse game between, on the one hand, the captain and the crew and the waste traders in the background trying to get rid of the cargo, and on the other hand, U.S. officials, the coast guards (who said you’re on a renegade ship), and most important of all environmental activists.

Are we planetarizing modern environmentalism to the degree that we’re no longer territorializing environmental protection?

PS: It strikes me that several things are going on. One is the prohibition on ocean dumping—one of the traditional ways people have gotten rid of their waste. The other is increasing regulations on sanitary landfills make it harder to dispose of waste. Weirdly, the very successes of environmental regulation sort of propelled the story.

There’s a deep irony here, of course, because Philadelphia, which is a city that has a disproportionately Black population and, I think, a Black mayor during this time too, dealing with its own environmental justice issues ends up, for the reasons you’ve just explained, foisting its waste on the rest of the world. It sort of transfers this environmental justice story out into the Caribbean and then globally.

Book cover with a blue background and black brush stroke going over it. The words in the center say "THE TOXIC SHIP"
The Toxic Ship (University of Washington Press, 2023)

SM: And that was really what fascinated me most about the example of Philadelphia. Oftentimes you’re studying environmental justice with a very neat and clear-cut binary understanding of these are the good guys and those are the bad guys. But Philadelphia just shows how complicated and complex the situation in reality is, in that the city can’t be villainized for being the bad guys who wanted to do harm onto Caribbean nations. That’s just too easy of a storyline.

Philadelphia really shows how complex and complicated the story is and how it’s more for lack of opportunities that they come up with it also because, and I think that’s important when we talk about the global waste economy, it’s not necessarily a “dumping.”

I’m always struggling with the term “dumping” because it makes it sound as if somebody comes with a ship and then they just dump it onto someone else’s territory. But in reality, you need an import partner, you always need somebody on the importing side that signs off on the deal.

PS: I think one of the innovative things about The Toxic Ship is the way in which you take this story in transnational directions. And I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how seeing this in a transnational or global scope changes how we might think about the issue of environmental injustice.

SM It really goes back to the two positions about “legal trade”: Are we thinking about nations and nation states and sovereignty? Or, are we presuming that these are universal human rights? One of which is the right to a clean and healthy environment.

I feel environmental justice has done a lot of work to go the the civil rights route. We see scholars and a lot of national activists coming to think about civil rights—what that means for non-discriminatory disposal of hazardous waste or also the situated mass of dirty industries in particular communities. But interestingly, they have done little oftentimes to pivot to the notion of other universal rights—universal civil rights versus something like that could almost be framed as “separate but equal” on a global scale.

When we talk about the global waste economy, it’s not necessarily a “dumping.”

Once we start globalizing environmental justice, this is really the discussion that we have. Are we planetarizing modern environmentalism to the degree that we’re no longer territorializing environmental protection? Then we need to base it on to universal human rights. Or are we going for a global “separate but equal” where every nation state in the end is allowed to make its own decisions on how it wants to protect its citizens?

PS: So in your book, you give us the story of the global hazardous waste trade through the Khian Sea and its journey. That makes for a wonderful sort of narrative through line that that allows you to hang a lot of very complex history onto the story. But I wonder how representative was the journey of the Khian Sea.

SM: I think the the ship is very representative in terms of the topics or the issues that it raises regarding unequal trading partners, the push factors of modern environmentalism being in place, strict environmental regulations and legislations in one country leading broadly to the externalization of the hazards rather than internalizing it and disposing of it cheaply.

That is something that we see happening not only in the U.S., but for instance, when we look at another project that we had in the hazardous travels research group that looked at the inter German waste trade. It’s almost exactly the same during German partition—you have in West Berlin almost the same problem as in Philadelphia.

So you can see that waste colonialism also was going on in other countries. The Khian Sea allows us to tease out the structures and dynamics of the global waste economy very clearly. It’s unique because it has become such an icon of the campaign.

Featured image: Garbage barge. Photo by Clemens v. Vogelsang, 2014.

Paul S. Sutter, Professor of History at the University of Colorado Boulder, is the author, co-author, or editor of several books, including Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement and Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South. He is series editor for Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books published by the University of Washington Press, and he is currently working on a book that is tentatively titled Pulling the Teeth of the Tropics: An Environmental History of the U.S. Sanitary Program in Panama. Contact.

Simone Müller a global historian of technology, economy, and the environment with a particular focus on globalization processes, the intersection of ecology and economy, and the era of the Anthropocene. Her research interests range from the global trade in hazardous waste to toxic legacy sites; from the intellectual history of economic ecological thinking to verticality as an enviro-historical concept and the study of marine space. Dr. Müller’s research has received numerous awards and fellowships, among them from the German Reserach Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, the Science History Institute, and the University of Pennsylvania. Contact.