For the first time ever, international shipments of plastic waste came under global control this year. That’s because disposable plastic — a major pollutant of the world’s waters and atmosphere, fodder for incinerators, occupier of overflowing landfills, and material for costly recycling — was added to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.
The convention is a United Nations treaty aimed at managing the adulterating of lands and seas with novel polluting entities, but how effectively this international protocol will work to control plastics disposal remains to be seen.
For nearly three decades, the Basel Convention has regulated international transport of hazardous materials, primarily so wealthy companies couldn’t dump their dangerous garbage on less-developed ones.
The agreement was formulated in 1989, and took effect in 1992, and initially covered toxic, poisonous, explosive, corrosive, flammable, ecotoxic and infectious wastes, including chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and cadmium; lead and other metals; copper including ash; electronics; cathode-ray and other glass tubes; and now has been extended to encompass plastics. (The Basel Convention does not deal with nuclear waste, which is instead regulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency.)
The Basel Convention partially addresses one of nine critical planetary boundaries — scientifically estimated limits within which humanity can continue to thrive, but which, if exceeded, could threaten civilization, humanity, and much of life on Earth. The novel entities planetary boundary includes synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metals, radioactive materials, genetically modified organisms, industrial nanoparticles, plastics and more. At present, there is insufficient research to determine whether we are overshooting the novel entities planetary boundary.
Importantly, the Basel Convention doesn’t ban the production, transport or dumping of waste. However, both importing and exporting nations (and any pass-through nations) have to agree in writing in advance on what can be shipped, whether for recycling or disposal. Recipient nations can refuse to take waste they deem contaminated. Nations are also free to enter into agreements with each other as long as their requirements meet or exceed the convention’s requirements.
An escalating plastics problem
It’s not clear exactly how much plastic waste is polluting the world. Planetary Concerns, an Australia-based environmental activist website, estimates that “12 million tons of plastic is entering the ocean every year. That’s more than 1 garbage truck every minute, every day. And it’s increasing.”
And while estimates differ, the U.N. Clean Seas Campaign says that as of 2015, only 9% of plastic was recycled, while 12% was incinerated and 79% wound up in landfills or the natural environment. Plastics make up 10% of worldwide waste.
The amount of plastic produced in developed nations continues to rise. The United States, for example, produced 390,000 tons in 1960, which rose to 35.68 million tons in 2018, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Despite many documented cases [of harm], it’s widely acknowledged that the full extent of [plastics] impacts on ecosystems is not yet known,” concluded a study by Our World in Data, a research organization. China, the world’s most populous country and factory to the world, produces the most plastic, at almost 60 million tons annually, says the study.
UNESCO notes: “Plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals.” According to the World Wildlife Fund, marine turtles see plastic bags as jellyfish or something else edible. And even if they don’t eat the waste, at least 1,000 die from entanglement in plastic materials every year.
A key absence among Basel signatories
Plastics were left out of the original Basel agreement, not because of a perceived lack of harm, but because of their complexity: they can include many different materials, with some products containing more than one type of plastic, and are often combined with additives or other elements, making regulations tricky to develop.
However, the plastic problem’s urgency, including the gigantic plastic patch in the Pacific Ocean, prompted Basel Convention parties to add the provision in 2019, to take effect this year.
Basel signatories have mostly accepted the plastics amendments in principle, though the parties are still working out regulatory details and nations retain some flexibility; 188 nations (counting the special Chinese administrative region of Hong Kong) are signatories of the original Basel Convention, with all but Turkey having signed onto the plastics amendments. Turkey says it needs more time to comply.
But the Basel Convention still does not encompass the globe with its hazardous waste dumping protections. China and Canada initially submitted notification of non-acceptance of the Basel amendments on the grounds that they couldn’t meet the timeframe, but changed their minds and ratified the amendments late last year.
The United States — after China, the world’s largest plastics producer and a prodigious exporter of waste — has never officially joined the Basel agreement. It did sign the treaty back in 1992 and the Senate consented, but the nation never officially became a party because Congress failed to pass the required regulatory legislation. No administration has pushed the issue since then. The U.S. remains the only major industrialized nation not to have joined.
And no U.S. legislation is currently pending, even though prominent Senate Republicans favored it in the past and even during the Trump administration never officially opposed it. “It is mind-boggling what we’ve done to our oceans. There is a way out,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing last July on ocean plastic pollution.
Jonathan Moore, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the U.S. State Department, testified at that same hearing that the Trump administration had “no view on Basel” but that “we are certainly prepared to be part of that discussion … We anticipate these amendments will significantly disrupt the global movement of plastic scrap and potentially cut off U.S. exports and imports of certain nonhazardous plastic scrap.”
Graham responded, “somebody’s got to do something. We’re the biggest fish in the sea,” and suggested that the U.S. needs to either ratify Basel or a successor. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) echoed the call, saying, “I have been very disappointed by the lack of U.S. leadership” on plastic pollution.
New hope for U.S. participation
The Biden administration has yet to take a position, though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided Mongabay with a statement: “EPA is evaluating its priorities as the administration’s political appointees continue to join the agency. Any discussion of ratifying the Basel Convention would be done in coordination with other agencies.” A U.S. State Department spokesperson, who asked not to be named, emailed Mongabay, saying that the “Biden-Harris Administration continues to consider issues relating to ratification of the convention.”
Anna Devanney, press secretary for Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emailed, “I don’t have anything for you on this at the moment, but I will be sure to let you know if that changes.” Neither Graham’s communications director, Kevin Bishop, deputy communications director, Toby Tyler, nor press secretary, Alice James, responded to repeated requests for comment.
That’s not to say there’s no interest in Congress in protecting the oceans — even with a Republican Senate and president, Congress did pass some ocean-related environmental legislation in 2020, including the Save Our Seas (SOS) Act 2, an expansion of the original SOS Act designed to protect oceans from plastic dumping. Industry didn’t oppose the bill, as it focused on research and innovation rather than regulation. The Digital Coast Act, which strengthens data-collection efforts to protect coastlines, also became law last December.
In late March, Sen. Jeff Markley (D-OR) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, a comprehensive bill that doesn’t mention Basel specifically but includes as one of its many components a measure that would largely require the U.S. to comply with the Basel plastic rules. The legislation would ban plastic waste “from being exported to any country not a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or to a country to then be re-exported to a non-OECD member country.” Waste recipient nations would have to give “informed consent” and could refuse any U.S. export. Similar legislation didn’t make it out of committee in either house last year. (The OECD consists of 37 developed countries united to work on international initiatives ranging from health issues to combating tax dodges.)
At present, U.S. exports of hazardous materials are governed by the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act, but that doesn’t apply to most plastics. However, U.S. shippers are bound to comply with the laws of nations receiving materials. The United States has also signed individual hazmat import/export agreements with the nations with which it does the most plastic shipping, including Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia and the Philippines. Since Mexico signed the Basel Convention, U.S. shippers now need prior consent before sending plastic scrap there. In the cases of the latter three nations named above, the treaties only include “import of hazardous waste from those countries into the United States, but not export from the United States to those countries,” according to the State Department. The U.S.-Canada agreement has been amended to comply with Basel protocols.
The responsibility for the failure to gain U.S. buy-in for the Basel amendments, according to critics, rests largely with the plastics industry, which wields significant power in the United States. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents the industry, spent $14 million lobbying in Washington last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The council reported paying nine outside lobbying firms using 56 registered lobbyists to work on its behalf in 2020, in addition to deploying its in-house advocates who worked on a variety of issues. The council claims that U.S. exports of plastic waste declined almost 70% between 2016 and 2020.
When the Basel signatories adopted the plastics rule, the ACC complained that:
[E]merging trends and technologies will continue to change the nature of traded materials, and the recent amendments may unintentionally make it more difficult for developing countries to properly manage their plastic waste. The added regulatory requirements will make it increasingly difficult for lower-income nations to export their recyclable plastics to regions with the new technologies and infrastructure to manage these materials responsibly. Small island developing states often lack the scale needed for recycling and usually export recyclable materials.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is scheduled to issue a report later this year on U.S. plastic dumping. Among other matters, an academy committee is looking into “import and export of plastic waste to and from the United States, including the destinations of the exported plastic and the waste management infrastructure and environmental conditions of these locations,” according to the NAS project description. The study will report on how U.S. plastic waste dumping compares to that of other countries, along with the sources of U.S. plastics. NAS plans to recommend solutions, potentially including design of a plastic waste monitoring system.
Basel plastics rules coming into effect
The failure of the U.S. to fully join the Basel agreement is obstructing proper global plastic waste management, say critics.
Today, the U.S. sends some of its plastic waste to Africa and Asia, where much of it is incinerated. According to the Basel Action Network (BAN), a Seattle-based NGO focused on the toxic waste trade, in February, the latest month for which figures are available, the largest recipients consisted of Malaysia (9.8 million kilograms, or about 10,800 tons), Mexico (5.6 million kg; 6,200 tons), and Vietnam (2.8 million kg; 3,100 tons).
One possible reason for industry and U.S. resistance: some forms of plastic, such as soda bottles, are relatively easy to melt and recycle. But other materials, such as food packaging that contains different types of plastics, are more complicated to handle and problematic. “It’s not cost-effective to separate the different types of material,” explains Jane Patton, senior campaigner for environmental health at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), an NGO. “The United States is taking every opportunity to try to get around these rules,” Patton charges.
The U.S. is not presently living up to the new rules, according to BAN. It announced in March that customs data it obtained show “U.S. exporters, global shipping lines and the U.S. government are all violating the new 2021 global rules, [while] plastics recycling in most developing countries is crude, incomplete and highly polluting.” Comparing January 2020 to January 2021 figures, the amount of U.S. plastic waste exports increased slightly from 25,200 to 25,700 metric tons, according to BAN.
The “U.S. appears to ignore the start of the Basel Plastic Waste Amendments,” BAN adds. Earlier this year on its website, the NGO reported that U.S. plastic waste shipments to India, Indonesia and Malaysia sent in February were possibly illegal. In January, the U.S. sent 25.2 million kg (27,800 tons) abroad, but in March, Malaysia declined to accept a shipment. While these shipments may not violate U.S. law, they may violate international law, leaving shippers and receiving nations subject to possible sanctions.
Elsewhere, international plastics shipments increased last year as exporters raced to get rid of as much waste as possible before the new Basel rules took effect, according to BAN. The European Union did the most exporting, followed by Japan, the U.S. and United Kingdom.
Major global recipients of plastic waste included Turkey, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Mexico. Shipments to Hong Kong, another frequent destination, declined last year, however, after the region passed legislation restricting delivery. (Danish shipper Maersk, the world’s largest shipper, also announced in 2020 that it would no longer transport waste to Hong Kong or China.)
The new Basel rules allow nations some flexibility in terms of the types of plastic they will accept or the allowed amount of contamination/mix with other substances such as metal or food residue. Indonesia, for instance will not accept any contamination, while Malaysia will accept 5%. “You cannot have dirty [plastic] diapers, for example,” sent to Malaysia, said David Azoulay, managing attorney for CIEL’s Switzerland office. Several Asian nations that are Basel signatories haven’t yet figured out what to do with U.S. plastic waste sent to them.
Basel only a partial measure
However well the Basel Convention and its plastics amendments work out, they can only solve a portion of the plastic pollution problem because they fail to deal with major manufacturing and disposal issues.
A CIEL analysis concluded last August that “the plastic crisis is much larger than just a waste issue; the entire lifecycle of plastic, from production, to use, to disposal, is harmful to human health and the environment. Ultimately, a global agreement is necessary to tackle the full plastic crisis, albeit in close coordination with existing instruments like the Basel Convention.”
The convention also doesn’t deal with intra-country plastic disposal or its production. So long as most plastics aren’t easily biodegradable, their infiltration as microplastics into every part of the global environment will continue with potentially unforeseen consequences. In addition, “The success of the convention hinges on how countries live up to their promises,” Patton says.
Another key issue will impact Basel’s true success rate. “Organized crime has [taken over] a large part of the illegal traffic and there are large profits to be made,” Azoulay explained. Transporting and disposing of waste “is more profitable than the drug trade, some would argue, and there are much lower sanctions.”
Nations won’t file their first official Basel Convention annual reports involving plastic waste import and export until the end of 2022. An international Partnership on Plastic Waste is supposed to help nations and businesses comply and improve handling of the material.
The Basel Convention secretariat is providing technical assistance on developing inventories in the meantime, says spokesperson Charles Avis. “A plastic waste inventory toolkit is being finalized and pilot-tested. It is expected to help parties in gathering data on the generation and environmentally sound management of plastic waste,” Avis wrote in an email. He added that “There is no obligation on non-parties such as the United States to provide such information.”
This article by Charles Pekow was first published on Mongabay.com on 17 May 2021. Lead Image: A gannet foraging in plastic waste. Image by A_Different_Perspective via Pixabay.
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