Basel is Not Just a Swiss Riverside Town … Or an Herb

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and Their Disposal – the Basel Convention for short – is an international treaty that entered into force in 1992 to ensure rich countries are not illegally disposing of hazardous materials into poorer countries.

The convention arose because environmental protection laws were tightening in the developed world, leading some to seek disposal options outside their borders while some less developed countries also saw earnings potential by taking in other countries’ solid waste. Unfortunately, public attention was drawn to the environmental harm caused in these countries by poor handling and disposal of products containing hazardous materials, such as the old cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions and monitors containing mercury and other constituents that are defined as hazardous in the Basel Convention. With 186 signatories, the Basel Convention today has effectively cut down on the illegal cross-border movement of electronics and other products containing hazardous materials, but what happens if the scope of coverage is suddenly widened?  We may find out in the coming year.


“Scourge of Plastics Waste” In June, the Norwegian government proposed to categorize “plastic waste and scrap” as hazardous under the Basel Convention. ISRI and others immediately voiced opposition as it would put a halt to the plastics scrap trade.


  • The Basel Convention requires exporters to seek informed consent before material can be exported, but most poor countries do not have the capacity to manage the current log of requests, with one exporter reporting they have been waiting more than two years to obtain approval. Such an administrative burden would detract from trade.


  • The United States is not a signatory to the Basel Convention, and even though exports are allowed to OECD (i.e., developed) countries, trade could not take place to others, including India, and many less developed countries would not be able to export recyclable plastics to the United States, which they would do if they lack recycling capacity.


  • The proposed Ban Amendment, which will prohibit the cross-border trade of hazardous materials from OECD countries to non-OECD countries, requires just two more signatory countries to go into effect.


So What? Norway’s noble cause is to keep plastics out of the oceans, and they are searching for any and every avenue to drive an international effort to address the growing problems of marine litter. The Norwegian government believes the plastic waste trade is partly to blame, but they heard our opposition, and at a meeting in September, sought to revise their proposal to only categorize “low quality” and non-recyclable plastics as hazardous. They have also proposed to create a dialogue between governments, industries, and civil society to talk about how to reduce waste, increase recycling and enhance waste management.


Although we support a dialogue, ISRI is still concerned about how a segregation of good and bad end-of-life plastics could be effectively implemented, and what might this mean for setting a precedence for any Basel Convention member to propose other materials for a hazardous classification because of domestic interests. Worse, how might such a proposal lend China credence for its scrap import bans and lead other countries to follow suit?


What’s next? ISRI will be an active and outspoken voice in this debate, including when the next big meeting of the Basel Convention takes place next spring.


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