IN 1987, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) adopted the “Cairo Guidelines and Principles for the Environmentally Sound Management of Hazardous Waste,” which contains recommendations concerning the export of hazardous waste. UNEP wanted to enlarge the scope of this international directive by creating a convention to formalize regulation procedures into international law.
The UNEP’s action gave birth to the “Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal,” or simply called the Basel Convention. It was opened for signature on March 22, 1989, and entered into force on May 5, 1992. As of October 2018, 186 states and the European Union are parties to the Convention. Haiti and the United States have signed the Convention but not ratified it. The control system under this agreement is based on prior notification and consent. It prevents transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries.
Now, there’s an amendment to the Basel Convention that will address a waste that is not hazardous but equally problematic -- plastics. Last May 10, more than 180 nations agreed in Geneva to add mixed plastic scrap to the Basel Convention. 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.
As a background, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) initiated a study on marine plastic pollution in 2014 and followed it up two years later with an assessment on the effectiveness of various governance strategies and approaches. In 2017, UNEA thereafter invited the Basel Convention “to increase their action to prevent and reduce marine litter and microplastics and their harmful effects.” In June 2018, Norway proposed amendments to the annexes to the Basel Convention to more squarely bring problematic plastic waste streams within its scope and control. A year after, the amendment was approved.
This amendment spells another problem for developed countries that generate a lot of plastic waste. Last year, China banned the imports of 24 categories of recyclable waste. The ban had a big impact in the recycling industry because China is the world’s largest importer of waste. Hardest hit is scrap plastic. In 2012, up to 56 percent of global exported plastic waste ended up in China.
Southeast Asian countries absorbed the banned materials. Trade data from the US Census Bureau reveals that US waste went to Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Turkey and South Korea. However, the influx of scrap into these countries forced some to impose restrictions on imports.
Environmentalists are happy with the amendment but the recycling industry is not. 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.” Overall, this move will force many nations, the Philippines included, to deal with their own waste in their own soil.