A landmark decision by 187 countries will see non-recyclable mixed plastics classified as ‘hazardous waste’ — restricting their flow across national borders. This will help ensure that poor countries do not become dumping grounds for the rich and boost waste reduction efforts and recycling closer to source, experts said.

In a bid to limit the transnational movement of plastic waste, governments from around the world agreed to classify non-recyclable and hard-to-recycle mixed plastics as hazardous. The decision came during a recent meeting of the signatories to the Basel convention, an international treaty which restricts the flow of hazardous waste, especially between richer and poorer countries.

Once the new restrictions enter into force, private companies will no longer be allowed to ship these categories of plastic waste directly to private partners in other countries. Instead, they will first have to gain the consent of the importing country’s government, thereby empowering local authorities to ensure that their territories do not become global landfills.

The landmark amendment started life as a Norwegian proposal which enjoyed the backing of the European Union. Norway’s proposal was partly motivated out of concern for the 100 million tonnes of plastics choking our oceans, 80-90% of which originate on land, and partly out of concern for the environmental and human impact of this trade in plastic refuse.

China banned imports of plastic waste in January 2018. Photo credit: Reuters

Trashing the system

Incorporating plastic waste into the treaty has received praise from environmental groups and anti-waste activists. “This is a significant victory for the environmental movement, with the EU taking a leadership role in cleaning up the international trade in plastic waste. The Basel amendments are a critical pillar of an emerging global architecture to address plastic pollution,” Tim Grabiel, a senior lawyer at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), told META.

Piotr Barczak, senior policy officer for waste at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Europe’s largest network of environmental organisations, with around 150 members in over 30 countries, said:

“We welcome the recent development of the Basel Convention. It clearly shows that plastic waste should not be treated as a tradeable commodity nor dumped or burned elsewhere because this involves heavy environmental and health costs during treatment.”

Despite this major leap forward, loopholes may be found in the system, the EEB fears, because the amendment assumes that all governments wish to protect their local environments from the scourge of plastic waste. However, this is not always the case. Some governments desperate for revenue or willing to make major sacrifices to develop may approve the importing of plastic waste beyond local capacities to deal with it.

A tsunami of plastic

Despite objections from some players in the recycling sector, the plastics amendment to the Basel convention passed almost unanimously – with the notable exception of the United States, which has not ratified the accord. This comes in the midst of a global plastics crisis of unprecedented proportions, intensified by China’s decision last year to stop importing plastic waste from other countries.

Prior to that point, China had been the destination of choice for the recycling of the mountains of plastic waste produced by developed nations, including in Europe. In fact, the United Kingdom and Germany are among the world’s top four exporters of plastic waste globally, according to Greenpeace.

China’s de facto ban has not stopped the tsunami of plastic, it has simply slowed it (more than halving the flow, from 12.5 million tonnes in 2016 to 5.8 million tonnes in 2018) and redirected it to less regulated shores. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand have borne the brunt of this tidal wave, according to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).

Plastic waste from industrialised countries is literally engulfing communities in Southeast Asia, transforming what were once clean and thriving places into toxic dumpsites,” Von Hernandez, the global coordinator of the Break Free from Plastic movement, was quoted as saying.

Prevention is better than recycling

Restricting the flow of waste plastic to less-developed countries means that it will pile up in developed countries, at least in the immediate term. Nevertheless, some representatives of the recycling sector welcomed the amendment as an opportunity both for the environment and European recyclers. “Bringing non-recyclable or difficult-to-recycle plastic wastes under the Convention will… force countries to do more to manage their own plastic waste at the point of generation,” the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) said in a statement.

The best place to get a sustainable, resource-efficient and low-risk material supply is from our own recycling infrastructure,” said Keith Freegard of Axion Polymers, a UK-based plastic recycler.

This will involve “a dramatic restructuring of the plastic waste trade, and a slew of new policies,” anticipates Tim Grabiel. “Although the European Union is a step ahead of many others thanks to the Circular Economy Package and Plastics Strategy, more will be needed,” he adds.

As with human health, prevention is better than cure is also the case for planetary health. “The real solution, which is also an opportunity for Europe, is to move away from questionable plastic recycling or incineration practices and, instead, to reduce as much as possible the initial plastic generation, by promoting non-packaging solutions, extending durability, as well as enabling and enhancing the reusability of products. Prevention of plastic waste must come first,” insists the EEB’s Barczak.