Monday, June 10, 2019
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste entered into force in Ireland in 1992. Its origins lie in a public outcry following the discovery in the 1980’s in Africa of deposits of toxic waste from industrialised countries. The overarching aim of the Convention which has been adopted by 186 countries is to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous waste. A recently agreed amendment to further control the movement of plastic is seen as a breakthrough for environmental justice and an ethical circular economy.
In the past 20 years there has been a significant rise in the volume of plastic being produced in Europe, USA, Canada, Japan and Mexico and exported as waste to developing countries. Many of these countries cannot deal with the waste in an environmentally sound manner. This results in plastic being dumped in oceans and toxic fumes from burning plastic damaging people’s health.
One of the challenges faced in seeking consensus for the Convention was protecting vulnerable countries from unwanted hazardous waste imports while not precluding the import of wastes considered valuable secondary raw materials to countries in a position to manage them in an environmentally sound manner.
In 2018, China which up until then had accepted the majority of plastic waste from wealthier nations, introduced a ban on the import of plastic waste. The consequence of the ban was that plastic waste was redirected from China to Malaysia, Vietnam and South Asia rather than any reduction in the volume of the waste.
The Basel Convention operates a traffic light type system where waste described as:
Norway’s recent proposal to amend the Basel Convention to address contaminated, mixed, and unrecyclable plastic waste more effectively was agreed by the Parties to the Convention last month. The amendment will mean that much plastic waste will be reclassified and will now require the prior informed written consent of the receiving country. As the United States is not a party to the Basel Convention, it will be banned from trading plastic waste with certain developing countries.
The amendment will enable countries threatened by plastic pollution to protect their environment and population from plastic waste which it cannot manage in an environmentally sound manner. Those countries producing plastic waste can expect this change to result in an increase in waste disposal charges. This change also means there will be a paper trail for all shipments of plastic waste and will provide for greater transparency and monitoring.
David Azoulay Environmental Health Director of Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) welcomed the decision:
“Today’s decision demonstrates that countries are finally catching up with the urgency and magnitude of the plastic pollution issue and shows what ambitious international leadership looks like. Plastic pollution in general and plastic waste in particular remain a major threat to people and the planet, but we are encouraged by the decision of the Basel Convention as we look to the future bold decisions that will be needed to tackle plastic pollution at its roots, starting with reducing production.”