A Timely Proposal
Norway has proposed a package of well-considered and timely amendments to the Basel Convention annexes that will effectively begin to address the frightening global prospect of an impending plastic waste crisis. This crisis stems in large part from the following two global developments:
1. The upheaval in the global marketplace due to China's new import restrictions has already resulted in plastic waste brokers targeting new unsuspecting countries (e.g. Southeast Asia with thousands of container loads of unwanted plastic scrap). Countries need the right to know what is coming to their shores before it gets there and they also should have the right of refusal as provided for in the Prior Informed Consent mechanism of the Basel Convention.
2. We have all come to realize that the planet's oceans, including its wildlife and fisheries, are suffering from a severe marine debris problem-particularly from plastics, much of which originate terrestrially and are moved by rivers into the sea. Unwanted plastics, or plastics traded where only a fraction of them are recyclable and the rest are dumped, are clearly a cause for exacerbation of this unfortunate situation.
The Basel Convention, being the only waste treaty and one which governs waste trade, is well placed to make a major difference to reduce the harm caused by plastic pollution. With the Convention we can ensure that plastics that are not likely to be recycled in an environmentally sound manner are included in the transparency and control regime of the Basel Convention.
The Norwegian proposal is simple and elegant:
Norway proposes to make optimal use of three distinct categories of plastic waste and scrap:
1) First, there are the plastic wastes that are considered hazardous and found on Annex VIII;
2) Second, there are plastic scraps which are non-hazardous that are placed in Annex IX. Norway has importantly proposed to qualify this entry to eliminate mixed and contaminated plastics;
3) Third, plastics that are difficult to classify or manage are to be considered wastes requiring special consideration and thus listed on Annex II.
When Plastics are Hazardous Waste
For Annex VIII their proposed language simply rephrases what the Parties have agreed already in Article 1, 1, a of the Convention as the definition of hazardous wastes, but here, in the context of plastic wastes.
"A AXXX Plastic waste containing or contaminated with Annex I constituents to an extent that they exhibit an Annex III characteristic (note the related entry on list B B3010)"
Those that might be unhappy with the absence of a de minimis level of contaminant concentration need to be aware that the Convention intentionally does not provide such levels (with one exception being PCBs), as the determination of what concentrations exhibit hazardous characteristics is a) dependent on the most recent science, and b) at times must be determined on a specific, case-by-case basis depending on the conditions with respect to certain management.
When Plastics are non-Hazardous Waste
With respect to Annex IX, Norway proposes replacing the chapeau on the current B3010 entry to add some clarity as follows:
B3010 Plastic waste
The plastic materials listed below, provided they are not to an extent which prevents the recovery of the waste in an environmentally sound manner, mixed with each other, mixed with other wastes
. Consignments of such plastic material should be prepared to a specification and suitable for immediate recycling requiring only minimal further mechanical preparatory treatment processes, if any (note the related entry on list A AXXXX):
The listed resins are presumed to be non-hazardous and thus can move as non-hazardous wastes, but with the above qualification can only be so listed as long as they are readily recyclable. If they are contaminated or mixed with other wastes or other types of plastics then they cannot appear on this Annex, but would be subject to some kind of control under the Convention (either under Annex VIII or II).
This, in our view, is very important and prudent to ensure that only those wastes which are truly recyclable can fall outside of the control regime of the Basel Convention. Many plastics that are currently implicated as exacerbating both marine and terrestrial debris, may not be hazardous per se, but like household waste need special consideration due to their propensity to create intractable and harmful pollution.
While it can be argued that some of the terms above are subjective, any ambiguity should be accomplished in a later Guidance Document. The intent of this new text is clear enough. Any remaining ambiguity at this stage should not be used as an excuse not to adopt at COP14 what is urgently needed now. We cannot afford to wait two more years.
When Plastics are Waste Requiring Special Consideration
To date the Basel Convention's Annex II has not been used much, but it serves an important role in the Convention. Annex II does not bog us all down in the debate as to whether certain plastics are hazardous or not. The debate is not worthy of our time when it is clear they are likely to cause serious harm to the environment as debris or as leading to harmful emissions or residues following dirty recycling. Annex II is unaffected by the Basel Ban Amendment, unless a country or group of countries wishes to include it nationally as the EU has done. But Annex II is required to be controlled under the Basel Convention (ie. prior informed consent, subject to trade between Parties only, requirement for ESM etc.). Norway's proposal to augment Annex II is appropriate for plastic waste.
Proposal for a new entry:
"Y 48 Plastic waste not covered by entry AXXXX of Annex VIII or B3010 of Annex IX."
The intent here is to provide a catch-all for wastes that are mixed, unclassifiable, and likely to therefore be difficult to manage or recycle in an environmentally sound manner. In this way Basel Convention controls will apply to any plastic wastes which may "fall through the cracks" of Annex III and IX. It is clear here that the intent is to provide Basel Convention Parties with the means to control unwanted plastic waste trade and mismanagement.
The Problem Addressed
The dangers that plastics pose to the environment and human health are now well established. Plastic is now found in all major water systems-- in both its visible form and in its broken-down form (ie. microplastic and nano-plastics) it poses and grave threat to the marine ecosystem. It can enter even enter the food chain and effect humans by releasing harmful additives. When burned in an incinerator, or openly, plastic releases persistent organic pollutants, a multitude of toxic emissions, and greenhouse gases. When proper protections are not in place, recycling of plastics too can be extremely harmful with workers and informal waste pickers exposed to harmful working conditions.
Until January of last year, China was the primary recipient of the world's plastic waste, which was often processed in crude factories with the unrecyclable residual material burned or buried, leading to massive environmental pollution and public health impacts. China has appropriately responded to this problem of a lack of sufficient environmentally sound management capacity in their own country, and a glut of low-value plastic arriving at their shores, by imposing a ban on the import of waste plastic. They have chosen to focus on the collection and proper recycling of their own domestically generated plastic waste.
But China's sudden refusal to be the world's plastics dumping ground has had a dramatic and potentially devastating effect on the rest of the developing world. Now that China has closed its borders to foreign waste, we are discovering that the massive volumes of the same waste materials have been deflected from China ports and are already arriving in the ports of Southeast and South Asian countries, where little capacity to manage the waste in an environmentally sound manner exists.