Basel Convention Opens New Chapter in Plastic Waste Management, But More Structured Approach is Needed
Addressing the global plastic waste challenge has been particularly high on governments’ and industries’ agenda in recent years, as the world’s marine litter crisis reaches catastrophic levels, jeopardizing marine life and vegetation and putting the very future of our oceans at grave risk. As a final step in May, the Basel Convention, a treaty that regulates movement of hazardous materials from one country to another, reached a historic agreement aimed at regulating plastic waste trade across the world.
The governments of 187 countries have agreed to control the movement of plastic waste between national borders in an effort to ensure safe and environmentally sound plastic waste management and eliminate the leakage of plastics into the environment. The pact was approved at the end of a two-week meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. The US was one of just two countries that have not ratified the agreement. As part of the resolution, contaminated and most mixes of plastic wastes will require prior consent from receiving countries before they are traded, with the exceptions of mixes of PE, PP and PET.
Plastic marine litter is a global challenge comprised of complex factors, chief amongst which is the mismanagement of plastic waste due to a lack of adequate land-based infrastructure in emerging economies. As much as three-fourths of ocean plastic comes from uncollected waste from land, with the remaining originating from gaps in the collection system itself. Among the top contributors of plastic marine litter globally are some of Asia’s fastest growing economies such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and China, which accounted for a combined 16.7 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic in 2010.
The Basel Convention is aimed at controlling plastic wastes that cannot be recycled in importing countries. It further seeks to stop mislabeling of shipments and find a solution to gain more transparency into the shipment of plastic waste in general. The World Plastic Council (WPC), of which GPCA is a member, welcomed the resolution as a great new opportunity to improve circularity of plastics and the effective reduction of plastic waste leakage in a globally coordinated and locally differentiated manner. It further praised the new resolution for aiming to stop all possible leakage of plastic in importing countries due to irresponsible and unsound plastic waste trade. However, certain gaps within the resolution most certainly do exist and ought to be highlighted to ensure such gaps are addressed through further collaboration and the pursuit of multi-stakeholder alignment.
“The Basel Convention is aimed at controlling plastic wastes that cannot be recycled in importing countries. It further seeks to stop mislabeling of shipments and find a solution to gain more transparency into the shipment of plastic waste in general.”
“Emerging trends and technologies will continue to change the nature of traded materials, and decisions [made last month] may unintentionally make it more difficult for developing countries to properly manage their plastic waste.”
Well-structured approach needed
The risks of plastic leakage are significant not only in developing economies, which import plastic waste, but also in developed, exporting countries. What is more, the capabilities of plastic waste recycling and availability of well recyclable plastic waste fractions vary significantly. This poses a critical question as to the universal approach adopted by the Basel Convention and its effectiveness and applicability to virtually all importing nations that inevitably will possess a varying degree of recycling capabilities.
To enable sustainable plastic waste management with zero threat to the environment without hampering the economic and business benefits created by plastic trade and recycling, a well-structured approach is needed that regulates unrecyclable wastes currently and further assesses more complex cases on their own merit. However, as it stands the selection of plastics adopted currently is very stringent, putting unnecessary burdens on certain well recyclable mixed plastics waste qualities and plastic types, thus hampering their trade, reducing their sustainability and influencing resource needs and domestic plastics waste leakage globally.
In response to the newly adopted resolution, the American Chemistry Council, said that, this is a complex area that deserves more nuanced consideration than it has received to date. “Emerging trends and technologies will continue to change the nature of traded materials, and decisions [made last month] may unintentionally make it more difficult for developing countries to properly manage their plastic waste,” ACC added.
It further warned that 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 lack the scale for recycling and often export recyclable materials. These regulations will make that more difficult,” the council stated.
“In addition, investments and expansions in advanced recycling and recovery systems (including in the US and Europe) are enabling society to repurpose more plastics into useful raw materials for new manufacturing. Policies that recognize these investments and enable innovation are critically important to achieving more sustainable, circular outcomes,” it concluded.
Pursuing greater plastic circularity, that enables the circular economy and contributes to sustainability is a key objective of plastic producers globally. Significant opportunities exist to stop plastics waste leakage by driving alternative feedstock strategies and making plastics fully circular either domestically or after import. The WPC and its members are seeking options to further contribute to developing circular solutions and offer their knowledge, competence and network to do so.
What this all means for the GCC region
Sound plastic waste management is an issue that directly impacts the Arabian Gulf region due to its key role as a major plastic producer and exporter. In line with its effort to contribute to the circular economy in the GCC and develop a robust domestic recycling infrastructure, a newly formed Coalition Circle (Coalition of Innovation in Recycling towards a Closed Loop Economy) comprised of government, NGOs, global and local private companies, has committed to tackling the issue of packaging waste pollution.
The coalition signed a pledge with the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) to develop a circular economy model to combat the issue of plastic and packaging waste pollution by improving collection.
Regulating plastic waste trade and ensuring it is exported in a safe and sustainable manner is only one aspect of tackling the plastic waste challenge we face today. What we need is to work towards developing the necessary legislation and infrastructure that supports plastic waste to be processed domestically.
China’s ban on imports of 22 types of lower-grade waste, including plastic waste, combined with changing regulations on the export of plastic to developing economies, create a real urgency to develop domestic recycling and waste management infrastructure in the GCC, which exports a significant amount of its waste to China. The establishment of a robust recycling and waste management industry in the Arabian Gulf will also yield significant benefits for the region. According to some statistics, as many as 10 new jobs can be added to the region for each ton of plastic waste generated, summing up recycling, collection, sorting, and transportation.
Dr. Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun, Secretary General, GPCA, commented: “Over the years, GPCA has been an adamant advocate of free and unrestricted trade. The new agreement will come into force in mid-2021 which gives the region enough time to start developing the necessary infrastructure to process plastic waste generated in the Arabian Gulf. The GCC states need to urgently invest in better waste collection, sorting at source, material recovery and recycling facilities. The benefits are immense ranging from job creation, adding further value to the regional economy to ensuring environmental protection through the diversion of plastic waste from landfills.
“The new agreement will come into force in mid-2021 which gives the region enough time to start developing the necessary infrastructure to process plastic waste generated in the Arabian Gulf.”
“Furthermore, there is a growing need to introduce standards that allow for the use of recycled content in packaging. This needs to be complemented with awareness programs for society, prompting behavioural change that stops littering, better understanding of the benefits and value of plastics as well as a move towards reusability that reduces waste generation. Finally, GPCA strongly advocates against replacing plastic applications with alternative materials unless they are scientifically proven to be less harmful for the environment throughout their life cycle.”
Kris Barber, CEO, DGrade, added, “High level focus and support for recycling brings opportunity for waste management companies to invest in sorting systems in order to maximise the value of recyclable plastics and offset this revenue against the cost of disposal of non-recyclables. These non-recyclable plastics may still have value in the waste to energy sector. Source segregation is key to reducing contamination and has proven to increase recovery levels and reduce waste to landfill. Technology is there to sort plastic by grade and quality, but government support is needed to encourage a much-needed change in the industry.”