Action Alert #3 - COP14
March 28, 2019
 Preventing the Plastic Waste Tsunami: 
Adopting the Norwegian Proposal at COP14
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 1 or contaminated 2 . 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.

Annex II

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.
Children collect plastic water bottles among the garbage washed ashore at Manila Bay in the Philippines. Copyright AFP.
While this problem has been signaled anecdotally, we currently lack sufficient means to properly quantify and track this potentially damaging trade -- and far worse, no means at all to control it should there be concerns. Right now, the transboundary flows of plastic are hidden and countries are faced with finding out about imports only after it is too late to take preventative action. Without plastics being listed as a controlled waste, nations targeted by traders are unable to anticipate the damaging shipments, and moreover are unable to refuse the importation on a multilateral basis and with the multilateral cooperation of the Basel Convention should they wish to do so.

Without such controls, the new flows of global plastic waste may, under the name of recycling, become epidemic with severe global consequences, including a further exacerbation of the marine debris crisis. We can no longer allow such a dangerous material -- found already to be implicated in destroying the marine environment -- to be shipped across the world without proper transparency, monitoring, and the potential for control.

Beware Delaying Tactics!

As the Norwegian Proposal is gaining a lot of support among countries, the packaging and plastic industry has resorted to trying to defeat it by proposing delaying tactics. These tactics will seek to use the following arguments: 

A. Partnership Yes, Legal Action No. -- Yes, Plastics Pollution is an important issue but we need to study the problem more -- a partnership is the way to go. This argument we already heard at the OEWG from countries like Canada and Australia and the US.
 
Why This is Wrong: History has shown that partnerships are not good at providing urgently needed legal corrections as envisaged by Article 18 of the Convention. A Plastics Partnership will be a useful place for dialogue, but history has shown they can take years to finish even a guideline. Further, they are unfortunately dominated by developed countries, English speakers, and industrial interests that have big travel budgets. They most often do not reflect the balanced needs of all of the Parties. 
 
B. The language is not as good as it can be, we need to have a working group to modify it.
 
Why This is Wrong: While it is easy to argue with the wording of the text proposed by Norway, they did not create this proposal in a vacuum. It has been vetted by many countries including all EU countries. BAN finds it to be too ambiguous in some respects, but we recognize the intent behind the words as well as the global urgency. We agree that Guidance can be made for interpretation of the new entries at a later stage, but right now the waste is on ships as we speak, inundating unsuspecting countries.  Time is of the essence and any proposals to delay adoption until such time as a working group can finish its almost endless debates should be seen as suspect. 
 
C. We have no evidence that plastic waste trade is exacerbating the marine debris problem. Until that is better understood we should not be hasty to change the Convention.
 
Why This is Wrong: It is already well established that much of the plastics exported to Asia from Europe and North America is not recycled, but rather sorted and large fractions of it are dumped. Dumped plastics in regions with high rainfall in many parts of the year means that these plastics are transported from being terrestrial pollution to marine pollution via rivers. Further trying to separate marine debris from terrestrial debris is a fool's game. Any pollution by plastics will be problematic for the environment.
 
D. We like the idea but we need more time to implement this. The 6 months implementation delay in Article 18 of the Convention is too short. Surprisingly this argument is being made by certain EU countries right now.
 
Why This is Wrong: The architects of the Convention struck the proper balance between administrative hurdles and undue delay. 6 months is a long time when considering how much unwanted plastic waste could be transported in that time.   Waiting any longer will just ensure that countries will have to erect a patchwork of national import bans to protect themselves. There is no  worthy reason not to accept the 6-month implementation date. It could well be a desperate tactic to delay and then weaken.

Conclusion

Fortunately, the Basel Convention framework is in place to provide a timely first solution to the plastic waste crisis. It was precisely for this reason -- controlling a dangerous, out of control waste market -- that the Basel Convention and the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure was created.

The planet urgently needs controls on a chaotic plastic trade situation. Countries need a right of refusal with respect to plastic waste now. This is why the Convention exists.

-- > We therefore urge your support to adopt the Norwegian Proposal at COP14.

In this way, we can take the first powerful steps to address the global plastic waste crisis.

END