EARTH Thailand

Paradigm shift in transborder plastic waste trade

Down to Earth 16 May 2019 | Rashmi Shrivastav  

Agreement reached at 14th Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention to make global trade in plastic scrap more transparent and better regulated

In a landmark decision at the 14th Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention (COP-14) held in Geneva (April 29 to May 10, 2019), nearly 180 governments adopted amendments made to the convention.

The modifications include plastic waste in a legally-binding framework, so as to make global trade in plastic scrap more transparent and better regulated, whilst also ensuring that its management is safer for human health and the environment.

Pollution from plastics has become a huge global concern with an estimated 100 million tonnes of plastic now found in the oceans, 80-90 per cent of which comes from land-based sources.

Global rise of plastic waste — a concern

It is only after China — world’s biggest importer of plastic scrap in 2017 — enacted the ‘National Sword’ policy on January 1, 2018, that brought momentum to tackle plastic pollution across the world both, by developed and developing nations, began substantially.

As a result of that change, Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam were quickly overwhelmed with the shipments of plastic and other toxic wastes, where the impacts are manifold and safeguards are minimum.

As developing nations increase restrictions, plastic trash is getting piled-up in developed countries leading to detrimental effects on their environment and daily operations.

Overview of the landmark convention

Themed under ‘Clean Planet, Healthy People: Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste’, COP-14 witnessed participation of around 1,400 delegates to empower the developing nations with the rights to forbid unrecyclable, polluting plastics and other hazardous wastes from affluent nations to enter their jurisdiction.

Evidence-based findings published by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and the International Private Equity Network (IPEN) were also highlighted during the convention to flag the global hazards from trans-boundary movement of plastic waste.

Close to 1 million people across the world signed a petition and urged the Basel Convention Parties to take decisions to manage plastic scrap substantially.

Interventions steered by Norway to modify Annexes II, VIII and IX of the Basel Convention, also facilitated appetite among member nations to formulate and materialise global actions against plastic and other hazardous waste shipments.

Major outcomes

According to the mandates, important amendments in the Annexes II, VIII and IX to the Basel convention were unanimously adopted. These can be broadly inferred as:

Plastic waste shipment, including mixtures, containing or contaminated with Annex I (healthcare wastes, scraps produced from surface treatment of metals and plastics etc,) constituents, to an extent that it exhibits characteristic(s) referred in Annex III (explosives, flammable liquids & solids etc,) has to be restricted;

Contaminated and most mixes of plastic wastes will now require prior consent from receiving countries before they are actually exported; with the exceptions of plastic trash consisting of one non-halogenated polymer (Polyethylene [PE], Polypropylene [PP] and Polyethylene Terephthalate [PET]); one cured resin or condensation product (urea & phenol formaldehyde resins etc,) and one of the fluorinated polymer (perfluoroethylene/propylene (FEP), Perfluoro alkoxyl alkane etc,). This will come into effect from January 1, 2021;

Solid or mixed plastic materials (B3010) listed in the Annex IX of the convention were exempted for trade until December 31, 2020, provided that they are recycled by the exporting country in an environmentally sound manner and almost free from contamination of any other kind of wastes. However, from January 1, 2021 onwards, this list (B3010) will be substituted by the new one (B3011), which exclusively constitute one non-halogenated polymer (PP, PE etc,); one cured resin or condensation product (epoxy resins etc,) and of the fluorinated polymer (FEP etc);

Plastic producers are obligated to cover the costs of plastic waste management and clean-up associated with it

Further, new partnerships on plastic waste were also initiated among different stakeholders to mobilise interests and expertise, and facilitate the implementation of the rules in a robust manner.

The pragmatic shift

In light of the above, the resolution so adopted will not only initiate the identification of domestic recycling infrastructures and their markets, but will also facilitate re-assessment of the products and packaging that were previously assumed to be recycled.

“This is a significant step towards stopping the use of developing countries as a dumping ground for the world’s plastic waste, especially those coming from the developed countries. Devising prior approval from an importing country (which are routinely ignored at ports) in the bylaws, will make the global trade system (both in plastic wastes & other hazardous chemicals) more regularized and transparent,” says Swati Singh Sambyal, programme manager at New Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment.