Photograph by Randy Olson, Nat Geo Image Collection
Read Caption

Bundles of plastic await recycling in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Photograph by Randy Olson, Nat Geo Image Collection

Shipping plastic waste to poor countries just got harder

More than 180 countries have agreed to include plastic in a treaty regulating exports of hazardous waste.

It just got more difficult for rich countries to ship their plastic waste to poor countries. On May 10, more than 180 nations agreed in Geneva to add mixed plastic scrap to the Basel Convention, the treaty that controls the international movement of hazardous waste.

Under the amended treaty, exporters must first obtain consent from the governments of receiving nations before shipping the most contaminated, mixed, or unrecyclable plastic waste. Requiring that kind of special attention is regarded as a crucial step in helping the world gain control of a plastic pollution crisis that has already seen 100 million tons of plastic waste leak into the world’s oceans, according to United Nations figures.

David Azoulay of the Center for International Environmental Law, a research and advocacy group, said in an interview that the action “shows what ambitious international leadership looks like.”

Plastic waste shipments became an issue last year after China, the world’s biggest importer of plastic scrap, stopped buying non-industrial plastic scrap, upending a $200 billion global recycling industry. By 2030 China’s new policy will have displaced more than 120 million tons of mixed or contaminated plastic, according to a study published last year.

As a result of that change, other Southeast Asian nations, including Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia, were quickly overwhelmed with shipments of waste that they did not have the capacity to handle. Several countries took action to stop shipments at their ports. In the West, plastic trash piled up on the docks in San Francisco and in the U.K. and other European nations, as trash exporters searched for new buyers.

Although the European Union is the world’s largest exporter of plastic waste, U.S. exports are the largest for a single country. But because the U.S. is not a party to the Basel Convention, the new regulations could effectively prevent it from selling contaminated or mixed plastic waste to developing nations, according to Azoulay and another observer who attended the negotiations.

A spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council said the U.S. potentially could negotiate separate agreements with other countries that would allow trade of contaminated plastic. But, she added, the amendment to the Convention creates “new regulatory hurdles.”

The new regulations were proposed as an amendment to the Convention by Norway, which, among other nations, unsuccessfully pushed for a broader global agreement on plastic waste at the United National Environmental Program meeting in Nairobi in March.

In Geneva, U.S. observers argued against amending the Convention, and suggested voluntary measures to contain plastics pollution would be more effective than binding measures, according to an observer of the discussion in Geneva.The U.S. also suggested that better infrastructure in developing nations would be a more effective solution. Its suggestions carried little weight in the negotiations because the the U.S. has signed but not ratified the treaty.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a recycling trade group, said in a statement that the amendments to the Convention “will hamper the world’s ability to recycle plastic material.…” Requiring prior informed consent from importing countries, the group argued, will create “an administrative burden that will make it harder for countries without recycling capacity to export collected plastics to countries with infrastructure in place.”

The Basel Convention was negotiated by the United Nations Environmental Program and is considered the most comprehensive international environmental agreement on hazardous waste. As of last year, 186 nations and the European Union are parties to the convention. Aside from the United States, a handful of smaller nations have not signed or ratified the Convention. The treaty’s full name is the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal.