February 25th, 2022
Basel Plastic Waste Trade Violations Rampant One Year After Amendments Entry into Force
Full Life-Cycle Controls on Plastic Called for at UNEA 5.2
I. Introduction
In April 2019, the Basel Convention Parties agreed to important new rules on plastic waste trade to address the increasing global plastic waste crisis, and in particular to prevent the acute harm to the environment and communities in importing countries caused by indiscriminate trade and dumping.

The consensus decision at the Basel Convention Conference of Parties (COP14), most notably placed a new category of plastic waste on Annex II subject to new control by all Parties. This new waste listing – Y48 includes all plastic wastes which are not deemed hazardous (new listing A3210 on Annex VIII) or not deemed non-hazardous (new listing B3011 on Annex IX).

As a result of this package (Y48, A3210, B3011) of new waste listing amendments, the only plastic waste exempted from Basel controls (Annex IX entry B3011) are the following wastes, when they are destined for environmentally-sound mechanical recycling (Annex IV, R3) and are almost free from contamination:

-      Mixes of polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET);

-      Shipments of a single type of non-halogenated plastic wastes;

-      Previously exempted wastes of thermoset plastics as well as five fluorinated polymers, although the fluorinated polymers exemption excludes post-consumer waste.
Because most collected plastic waste – post-consumer waste – cannot be easily separated and cleaned of contamination, even with the most modern techniques, the bulk of plastic waste shipped internationally is in fact believed to be mixed and contaminated plastic waste (Y48) controlled under the Convention at a minimum by the default control procedure of prior informed consent (PIC). And, where non-Parties such as the United States are involved, trade between Parties and non-Parties in Y48, will in accordance with the Convention be prohibited, unless a special Article 11 agreement exists to trade in these. Likewise, exports of Y48 to non-OECD countries are now banned in countries where Parties have included Annex II wastes as part of their national or regional implementation of the Basel Ban Amendment (new Article 4a). This is the case now with the European Union and thus exports of Y48 to non-Annex VII countries is prohibited by those 27 countries.

The question of what should be the levels of allowable contamination and thus be considered a Y48 controlled waste is an important one. So far, this has been left to individual Parties to determine. BAN has been following national developments in this regard and has created an in-progress table of allowed contamination levels. Most countries have set contamination levels between 0 and 5%. And, we know that much of the currently generated and traded plastic waste, and in particular post-consumer waste, exceeds such levels.

II. Looking at the Data: Compliance with Amendments Found Lacking

It is against that background that we examine the known plastic waste trade data for 2021. While it would seem plastic waste trade from most countries has declined somewhat when comparing 2020 to 2021, it is far from certain whether the new amendments played a role in this regard. This trend may relate to the Covid pandemic and the well documented associated global economic and shipping downturn.

Rather, the concern is the very substantial volumes of waste that  is highly likely to be Y48 plastic waste which continues to be traded with much of that trade being without PIC controls, or in defiance of existing trade prohibitions. Next, we outline three of these of these substantial and alarming illegal flows.

A. Illegal: Trade Between the United States (non-Party) and Parties

In the chart below, we can see the 2021 plastic wastes exports from the United States -- a Basel non-Party. While the exports of plastic waste between the US and Canada is considerable and are considered by both governments as being legal by virtue of a bilateral arrangement the majority of US exports are to other Basel Parties for which no valid Article 11 agreement exists for Y48 trade. It is important to note that the OECD Council decision that the US is part of, has not agreed to include the new Basel Amendment of Y48 and thus cannot be used as a trade instrument for that important new listing.

From the standpoint of mixed and contaminated plastic wastes, two primary sources exist in the US – electronic waste and household/small business derived plastic waste. Both of these streams are inevitably mixed polymer streams. Very few electronics recyclers have the capacity to separate the many plastic polymers found in electronic equipment. It is simply not currently done.

Likewise, the US Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) employed by waste haulers to manage municipal wastes, are not capable of sorting each possible plastic polymer they receive. While optical or hand sorting can isolate some polymers such as PET bottles in some MRFs, they cannot isolate all of the known polymers as is required to avoid a "mixed" and thus Y48 listing. And, with respect to contamination, the MRFs typically produce waste bales with contamination levels of 10% or more. Thus, the bales generated from all of the electronics recyclers and all of the US cities are going to be either mixed polymer waste or will be overly contaminated and exceed the contamination norms of 0-5% being established globally.
While overall US exports in plastic waste have declined by 11% (2020 - 2021), in the charts below we can see that the waste that still flows while the new amendments were in force, are shifting away from Asia and towards Latin America. Countries should take steps to stem the flow of illegal Y48 from the US to their countries, and, the US should take steps to cease aiding and abetting criminal trafficking in wastes, regardless of their ratification status.
Aeshninna Azzahra (Nina) 12, of the River Warriors displaying Target Department Store bags from the US, protesting recent arrivals of US wastes to Indonesia. Copyright Ecoton 2021.
In addition, US government data clearly shows illegal traffic from the US to the rest of the world in PVC. While PVC should be regarded as a hazardous waste, due to hazards intrinsically associated with PVC (organo-halogen with H13 characteristic), and due to the hazards associated with additives commonly found in PVC products such as cadmium, lead and DEHP it is at least defined within the Y48 listing as a halogenated polymer. Either way, its trade is prohibited between non-Parties and Parties. However, according to readily available trade data, the United States, a non-Party, continued to export PVC waste to many Parties in 2021, such as Malaysia, Mexico and India (see chart below), in direct violation of the Convention. Countries receiving PVC waste from the United States should be prosecuting this illegal traffic, while the US should pass laws that prevent aiding and abetting criminal trafficking in waste regardless of their Basel ratification status.
B. Illegal: European Union/UK Exports of Y48 to Turkey and non-OECD Countries

Like their counterparts in the United States, European waste management operators most often cannot segregate municipal wastes by polymer nor adequately reduce contamination. As a result, the plastic wastes that they continue to export to Turkey and to non-OECD countries will fall under Y48 rather than B3011 (Annex IX). The EU exports to non-OECD countries violate the EU Waste Shipment Regulation's ban on exports of Basel Convention Annex II wastes to countries outside the OECD. Sadly, the UK, following Brexit, has not likewise banned the exports of Annex II wastes to non-OECD countries. Further, the EU has claimed an illegal exemption from the new Basel listings such as Y48 when it comes to internal trade between EU member States. This unilateral action by the EU is clearly a derogation from the Basel Convention and does not represent an equivalent level of control required by Article 11 Agreements. So, this internal EU  trade which is not being controlled in accordance with the Basel Convention, must also be seen as illegal trade -- even as it is directly condoned by the EU itself.

With respect to 2021 exports from the EU and UK to non-OECD countries and Turkey, plastic wastes have been documented being dumped and openly burned in some importing countries, creating persistent organic and heavy metal laden toxic pollution. A recent Greenpeace investigation sampling ten sites around the industrial hub of Adana, Turkey, found very high levels of pollutants in sites where plastic waste imported from the UK and Germany was dumped and burnt. An even more recent Greenpeace study finds cancer-causing and hormone-disrupting persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy meals (particularly cadmium and lead), and chlorinated dioxins and furans, at up to 400,000 times higher than background levels. 
A Greenpeace Turkey campaigner sits behind a banner saying 'Wasted Land' and investigates a waste pile in Seyhan, Adana Province, Turkey, in November 2021. © Caner Ozkan / Greenpeace
While the 2021 UK data indicates dramatic reductions in exports to non-OECD countries and to Turkey, we can see that this trend is sadly, already starting to reverse itself. At the same time, we can observe that exports from the UK to Netherlands have increased dramatically while exports from the Netherlands to such destinations as Malaysia skyrocketed simultaneously. This would appear to indicate that Netherlands is being used as a transshipment country for the UK and perhaps other European countries to destinations such as Malaysia. 
C. Illegal: Plastic Waste Hidden in Paper Waste Bales: a Trojan Horse with dire consequences

A Radio Canada investigation recently exposed Canadian paper waste shipments between 2019 and 2021 heavily contaminated with plastic (around 25%), especially plastic bag and film waste, that was ultimately burnt in artisanal stoves and factory boilers in Java, Indonesia and Muzaffarnagar, India, creating severe pollution and harm to local communities, including infants.

The investigation showed that although these shipments in the absence of notification and consent by the importing countries, should be considered illegal under the Basel Convention as of 1 January 2021 and yet the exporters, such as the City of Montreal, claimed that there is nothing they can do! This appears to be a problem endemic to the entire paper recycling industry -- much of which has relocated to Asia.

The Indonesian NGO Ecoton has discovered mountains of plastic waste thrown into dumps adjacent to some of the world's largest paper recycling facilities in Indonesia. The plastic was ejected from the paper mill's equipment as a contaminant, but the levels of such contamination coming into the plant are estimated at greater than 10% and have created alarming waste mountains that are being scavenged by nearby residents for fuel. There exists a very real danger that these piles will be burned in situ or the wastes will be blown freely into waterways, perhaps contributing to the load of plastic marine debris. There are few more hazardous and polluting operations than open burning of plastic waste as such combustion releases dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of the most toxic pollutants known.
Prigi Arisandi, founder of Ecoton stands in mounds of plastic waste at a landfill near paper mills that import foreign paper waste in Gresik, East Java, Indonesia, February 2022. © Copyright Ecoton. 
From a legal standpoint, it cannot matter in the Basel Convention that these shipments are likely being incorrectly considered by their exporters as B3020 (non-hazardous paper waste) due to them consisting of a majority of paper waste. The Basel Convention listing system never concerns itself with majority percentages of constituents in order to qualify as one listing or another. Indeed, the Basel Convention has always been about the propensity of a waste to cause harm and not based on cut-off levels. Just as a shipment of 10% mercury contaminated soil, would be considered mercury waste, and not simply soil, paper contaminated with harmful levels of a Basel listed waste must qualify as a Basel listed waste. This is true both for Annex VIII and for Annex II.  Therefore, these paper exports with high and harmful levels of mixed and contaminated plastic should be considered as Y48 or A3210, and not as B3020. The policy, when there is doubt due to overlapping listings, should always be to consider the waste listing that requires the highest level of control.

Plastic waste, mixed intentionally or otherwise into other waste streams, whether they be electronic waste, refuse derived fuel (RDF), processed engineered fuel (PEF), textile waste, or paper waste, must logically fall within the new net of control cast by Y48.

III. Conclusion

Nearly three years on from the historic Basel Convention COP14 decision that placed new controls on the plastic waste trade and one year after their entry into force, trade data points to a staggering amount of violations. On the eve of negotiations at UNEA 5.2, these breaches also illustrate very clearly that while the efforts to control trade in plastic waste are vital, such efforts by themselves cannot be considered a sufficient solution to the greater plastic waste crisis we all face.

A. Increased Implementation and Enforcement of the New Basel Rules Vital

It is without question that we must respond with vigor to the dismal data that shows diligent implementation and enforcement of the new amendments is cruelly lacking. The breaches of the Convention primarily stem from continued trade in mixed and contaminated post-consumer plastic waste as well as halogenated plastic waste (notably PVC). In addition, it is clear that paper waste exports have become a Trojan horse for low-quality mixed plastic waste and this too threatens developing countries. These also must be considered Y48 exports and likely violations of the Basel Convention.

Toxic pollution and its burden on communities and ecosystems in importing countries continues as a direct result of these multiple violations and governments’ lack of commitment to diligent compliance and enforcement. The commitment and vigilance of Parties and non-Parties alike is essential to stem the toxic tide that pushed China to close its doors to plastic recycling in 2018, and today plagues many more countries around the globe.

It is vital that all Basel Parties properly and diligently implement and enforce their obligations under the Basel Convention. This must include port inspections and high penalties for violators.

B. Systemic Solution: Upstream Controls to Minimize Plastic Generation via a New Treaty

Increasingly, it has become clear that the primary reason plastic waste moves across borders is due to the fact that most plastic waste cannot be economically collected, separated, and safely recycled by the countries that generate such waste. Plastic waste has little value, and, as it is not able to be recycled more than one or two cycles, requires constant additions of virgin plastic – derived from fossil fuel. Further it is laden with a plethora of toxic additives making its safe, and efficient recycling  very difficult and costly. In short – plastic, is not an inherently circular product.  A recently released OECD report Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts, and Policy Options indicates that only about 9% of plastic today, is recycled, and this is some 50 years after plastics recycling has been highly promoted. Further, we would argue that even that 9% that is being counted as recycled, remains guilty of perpetuating a circle of poison due to the recycling and market reshuffling of toxic additives.

As we have seen since the 1980s, difficult to manage, low-value waste finds its way on a path of least resistance to locations where its harm and costs can be externalized to others -- often those least able to deal with it.

It should be clear to all of us that the most compelling answer to the problem of the trade in plastic waste lies in the prevention of its generation.

Waste trade controls are critical, but as the Basel Convention’s Preamble duly recognizes, “the most effective way of protecting human health and the environment from the dangers posed by such wastes is the reduction of their generation to a minimum in terms of quantity and/or hazard potential.”

We need a global plastics treaty focused primarily on reducing unsustainable plastic production. We must hope this is well understood and emphasized by those delegates assembled in Nairobi (UNEA 5.2 Meeting) this next week.

For more information:

A full array of import export data and charts can be found at BAN's Plastic Waste Trade Hub.