Mixed plastic exports put on amber list at Basel Convention meeting

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Exports of recycled materials are sent via container ship

The 14th Meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention has agreed to put mixed, unrecyclable and contaminated plastic waste exports on the amber list.  

This means that any shipments of these materials will require prior consent from receiving countries before the waste exporters can proceed.  

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The decision follows proposals by Norway, the EU and China to list plastic waste as a material that requires consideration before it is sent.  

However, plastics including mixes of PE, PP and PET have been excluded from this decision, and will remain on the green list as long as they are “almost free from contamination”, according to the agreed text from the Basel Convention. It is understood that this means that bottles will still be allowed to be exported with lids and sleeves, as long as they undergo a secondary recycling process at the end destination. Other mixed plastics of these grades will remain part of the amber list.

Countries will be able to define themselves what constitutes “almost free from contamination”, meaning they can impose stricter import rules above and beyond those that will be agreed as the baseline Basel contamination levels by an upcoming Basel working group.

360 Environmental director Phil Conran said: “While this might not have gone as far as many hoped in banning mixed plastic waste exports, it applies significantly stronger controls and gives parties the formal ability to apply tighten these still further. Given the strength of opposition from some countries, this is a welcome step forward.”

During the meeting, the United States, while not a party to the Convention, worked with Argentina and Brazil to “scuttle the agreement” in support of ISRI and the plastics and chemicals industries present.  

However, its efforts were rejected, and the decision to move certain plastics to the amber list was adopted by consensus.  

As the Basel Convention prohibits trade between Parties and non-Parties, any future exports of the same mixed and dirty plastic to developing countries will be considered illegal traffic. 

European Union countries will also be banned from exporting dirty and mixed plastic waste to developing countries as they have already barred all exports of Basel controlled waste to these destinations.  

It is expected that the new rules will come into force on 1 January 2021, with enforcement taking place from the next Conference of Parties meeting in May of the same year.

At the same time as the Convention, a new Partnership on Plastic Waste was created to mobilise business, government, academic and civil society resources, interests and knowledges to support the implementation the new measures.  

Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Executive Secretary Rolph Payet (UNEP) said: “I’m proud that this week in Geneva, Parties to the Basel Convention have reached agreement on a legally-binding, globally-reaching mechanism for managing plastic waste. Plastic waste is acknowledged as one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, and the fact that this week close to 1 million people around the world signed a petition urging Basel Convention Parties to take action here in Geneva at the COPs is a sign that public awareness and desire for action is high.” 

Basel Action Network director Jim Puckett said: “We have taken a major first step to stem the tide of plastic waste now flowing from the rich developed countries to developing countries in Africa and Asia, all in the name of ‘recycling’, but causing massive and harmful pollution, both on land and in the sea. A true circular economy was never meant to circulate pollution around the globe. It can only be achieved by eliminating negative externalities and not just thrusting the harm on developing countries.” 

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