World governments agree to control export of plastic waste

186 countries have agreed to put restrictions on the export of plastic waste, after an amendment to the global framework governing the movement of hazardous chemicals and waste was passed on 10 May.

The decision came at the 14th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention, in Geneva, Switzerland. The Convention places trade controls on hazardous wastes and regulates its disposal.

Originally proposed by Norway in September 2018, the amendment will place mixed plastic waste on the 'amber list' of waste materials, meaning that exports of mixed plastic waste will be required to obtain the consent of receiving countries before being exported. 186 countries party to the Convention – excluding the US – agreed to add plastic waste to Annex II of the Convention, which includes a list of wastes for ‘special consideration’.

Many nations have closed their ports to imports of plastic waste.Speaking at the close of the conference, Rolph Payet, UN Environment's Executive Secretary, said: “I’m proud that this week in Geneva, Parties to the Basel Convention have reached agreement on a legally-binding, globally-reaching mechanism for managing plastic waste.

“Plastic waste is acknowledged as one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, and the fact that this week close to 1 million people around the world signed a petition urging Basel Convention Parties to take action here in Geneva at the COPs is a sign that public awareness and desire for action is high.”

To support actions to tackle plastic waste, a Partnership on Plastic Waste was also established to bring together, business, government, academic and civil society resources, interests and expertise to assist in the implementation of the new measures.

A flood of plastic

The move comes as the export of plastic waste has been placed under ever greater scrutiny following the Chinese Government’s decision last year to ban imports of 24 grades of solid waste, including post-consumer plastics. The closure of such a vital export market led to recyclers scrambling to find alternative destinations for their plastic, leading many to divert their exports to other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia and Vietnam.

However, such has been the scale of the flow of plastics into these countries and its negative environmental impact, many are following China’s lead and closing their ports to plastic imports, with Malaysia and Vietnam implementing restrictions last year and even India banning imports in March of this year.

China’s import ban brought the nature of the global recycling system to the top of the news agenda, unveiling the reliance of many countries on the export system to deal with their waste. This has been particularly apparent in the UK, which used to send around 494,000 tonnes of plastics to China every year. Furthermore, half of the UK’s total plastic packaging recycling rate was accounted for by exports, with the total amount of packaging waste exported increasing sixfold since 2002, according to a report by the National Audit Office.

Such revelations have caused a backlash in the UK, with a group of MPs signing an Early Day Motion in February signalling their concern over the export of plastic waste, calling for a complete ban on the export of plastic waste to developing countries.

‘Need to take stock’

Anxiety over the UK’s reliance on exports has fuelled calls to invest in domestic reprocessing infrastructure and stimulate secondary markets for recycled material in the UK. The government’s Resources and Waste Strategy (RWS), released before Christmas, emphasises the need to reshore the UK’s waste and make greater use of the material at home – a proposed tax on minimum recycled content in plastic packaging is one of the ways the government hopes to kickstart this process.

While there is general support for this, some in the industry are urging caution over the imposition of stricter controls on plastic waste before more infrastructure is brought online. Back in December, the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services (FEAD) criticised Norway’s amendment, stating that it was ‘bound to miss its own objective’ and could ‘hinder the development of an EU market for plastic waste, by raising the administrative burden and the costs of shipping plastic, or by making them simply impossible’.

Simon Ellin, Chief Executive of the Recycling Association, which has urged a greater emphasis on quality of material exports in order to keep export routes open, commented prior to the passing of the amendment on Friday: “What we can’t get away from is that we are a 60 per cent next exporter of fibre and there is very little chance of any new capacity. We are a 70 per cent net exporter of plastics packaging, and although I think we will see new capacity as a result of RWS, this will take a long time to come to fruition.

“Therefore we need to be careful what we wish for – how can we deliver RWS if we restrict exporting? The global market is now a buyers’ market and they have choice – we need to be careful that we don’t restrict our business to such a degree that world markets will not want to deal with us and the RWS will fail.

“To a significant degree, the market has corrected itself and many countries have imposed significant restrictions to clamp down on illegal exporting… so this risk has receded to a significant degree and will progressively reduce further. The RWS is all about being better recyclers and improving quality and if you add this to the restrictions outlined above, along with the advent of new block chain technology which will allow cradle to grave tracking of shipments, things are improving rapidly. We need to take stock before we rush headlong into restrictive practices such as the Norwegian proposal.”

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