Countries Must Now Consent to Receive Shipments of Plastic Waste

A new rule took effect on January 1 that could reduce ocean plastic within five years.

plastic recycling workers in Indonesia
Scavengers collect plastic to recycle at an import plastic waste dump in December 2018 in East Java, Indonesia.

Getty Images/Ulet Ifansasti

On January 1, 2021, an important new law tackling plastic pollution came into effect. It was an amendment to the Basel Convention, which controls the movement of hazardous waste between countries, and thanks to pressure from Norway, was expanded to include plastic. Nearly every country in the world (186 nations) signed on to the amendment, but unfortunately, the United States was not one of them.

The amendment states that countries receiving shipments of plastic waste for recycling must be informed of its contents and give permission for those shipments to arrive. If permission is not granted, the shipment remains in its country of origin. It is a response to the flood of contaminated, mixed, and difficult-to-recycle plastics that has been dumped on many developing countries, including Vietnam and Malaysia (among others), since China's ban on plastic imports started in January 2018. 

Rolph Payet, executive director of the Basel convention, told the Guardian that these new rules will eventually make a difference in the amount of plastic waste we see in the natural environment. "It is my optimistic view that, in five years, we will see results," he said. "People on the frontline are going to be telling us whether there is a decrease of plastic in the ocean. I don’t see that happening in the next two to three years, but on the horizon of five years. This amendment is just the beginning."

The logic behind the amendment is that countries that outsourced recycling in the past will now be forced to deal with their own waste. Although comprehensive recycling infrastructure is lacking in most countries and recycling rates are abysmally low – which is why they exported in the first place – the hope is that this amendment will force them to come up with better systems and solutions for dealing with waste. At the very least, developed countries will no longer be able to turn a blind eye to the sheer quantity of plastic waste they generate, nor how poorly designed for recycling much of it is. 

It's not like the importer countries have it any more figured out than the exporters. In fact, looser regulations and lax oversight are main reasons why many of these developing countries accepted plastic waste, and far less recycling goes on than many people would like to think. From the Guardian:

"Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated. The other 79% has accumulated in landfill, dumps and the natural environment, where it often ends up washing into rivers via wastewater, rain and floods. Much of it eventually ends up in the ocean."

Payet says that there will likely be temporarily increased rates of incineration and landfilling in developed countries as they struggle to figure out what to do with the surplus; however, "in the long term, if government policies are right and if consumers keep applying pressure, it will create the environment for more recycling and a circular approach when it comes to plastic."

We've long argued on Treehugger that more recycling is not the answer, so a focus on a circular approach, including a far greater emphasis on reusable, refillable, and returnable packaging, as well as materials that are truly biodegradable and home-compostable, is preferable. 

Andrés Del Castillo, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law in Geneva, told Treehugger that the amendment is an important achievement:

"[It] sends a strong message on how international law, multilateralism and political will can contribute in a very practical manner to addressing global issues and silent pandemics such as plastic pollution. The amendment does not only increase controls on plastic waste trading, by requiring prior informed consent from importing countries. It is also expected to provide greater transparency by shedding light on the international flows of plastic waste (all shipments will be documented and leave a paper trail) and eventually expose the myth of plastic recyclability and force the biggest waste producers in the world to face their responsibility."

The idea of a paper trail is intriguing, as this has long been a murky industry with minimal accountability. There is no doubt that shining a spotlight on major waste producers will make them uncomfortable and more inclined to clean up their acts, so to speak.

An ongoing issue, however, will be those countries finding loopholes in the amendment, such as Argentina. Its president passed a decree in 2019 reclassifying certain recyclable materials as commodities rather than waste, which would allow for "looser oversight of mixed and contaminated plastic scraps that are difficult to process, and are often dumped or incinerated" (via the Guardian). Argentina has been accused by environmental activists of setting itself up to be a "sacrificial country" for plastic waste, all in hopes of making a profit as global regulations tighten.

Del Castillo adds that implementation and enforcement will be key moving forward with the amendment now in effect: "We are already seeing countries, such as Canada, trying to evade their responsibility by concluding illegal (and immoral) trade agreements to continue to offload their dirty plastic waste in secrecy."

He refers to an agreement signed between Canada and the US in October 2020 that would allow for free trade of newly-listed plastic wastes, despite the fact that Canada signed the Basel Convention amendment and the U.S. did not. Del Castillo writes that such an agreement "cannot, under any interpretation, be considered to be providing an equivalent level of control as that of the Basel Convention" and that it is "deemed a violation of Canada’s obligations under the Convention."

Additionally, there is a real risk that the U.S.-Canada agreement could result in plastic waste coming from the U.S. and then getting re-exported through Canada to third countries, without complying with the Basel Convention provisions. 

The coming years will present a steep learning curve, but accountability is desperately needed in the global recycling industry, and this amendment is the best option we have now. Hopefully, Payet's belief that we'll see less plastic waste in the oceans will come true, but that will also require governments to focus more on innovation and product design than finding loopholes to continue business as usual.