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Plastic waste joins ‘amber’ export restrictions

A tightening of the rules for plastic waste exports has been agreed at the 14th Meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention. Mixed, unrecyclable and contaminated materials will from January 2021 be added to the control regime that requires the consent of importing countries before their exports can proceed.

However, a series of exemptions mean that polymers such as mixed PET, PP and PE can be exported if ‘almost free from contamination’ and there is suitable evidence of genuine domestic recycling.

The technical change is that plastics wastes, including mixtures of such wastes, have been added to Annex II of Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. In short, they move from the so-called ‘green’ list to ‘amber’.


The change, proposed by Norway and backed by the majority of the 187 nations present, was welcomed by the Convention’s environmental watchdog organisation the Basel Action Network (BAN) as a breakthrough for environmental justice and an ethical circular economy.

‘Today 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,’ says Jim Puckett, director of BAN. ‘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.’

Impact on the US

BAN says this the move will affect the US, even though it is not a party to the Convention. As the Convention forbids trade between parties and non-parties, future exports of the same mixed and dirty plastic to developing countries will be considered illegal traffic. EU member states will also be prohibited from exporting such waste as they have already banned all exports of Basel-controlled waste to developing countries.
The exemptions can be found here.

In a separate move, the Convention also agreed to establish a ‘Partnership on Plastic Wastes which is tasked with ‘collecting information and undertaking analysis on environmental, economic and social impacts’ of policies and strategies relevant to plastic waste prevention and management.

Other responsibilities include:

  • sharing information over possible solutions to barriers to plastic waste reduction and recycling, undertaking pilot projects
  • raising awareness about the contribution of plastic wastes to marine litter
  • encouraging innovation, research and development.

E-scrap disappointment

But BAN is unhappy that guidelines for transboundary movements of e-scrap were not adopted at the meeting. BAN argues that those seeking to dump low value e-scrap can too easily exploit an exemption allowing exports of scrap for repair.

Puckett says: “The electronics industry overstepped and trampled the fundamental principles of the Basel Convention by allowing a backdoor channel for uncontrolled exports of non-functional hazardous electronic equipment. This remains a very dangerous idea because unscrupulous waste traders would simply declare everything to be repairable to legally dump hazardous e-wastes on developing countries.” 

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