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BASEL Convention Update

By Adina Renee Adler, Assistant Vice President of Government Relations and International Affairs, ISRI

The Basel Convention’s 14th Conference of Parties (COP) was held in Geneva, Switzerland, during April 29 – May 10, 2019, and ISRI participated as an observer. There were two major outcomes from the meeting that e-scrap recyclers need to be aware of.

  1. E-Waste Technical Guidelines:  The Basel Convention COP-9 of 2009 gave a mandate to the Parties to implement a work plan for the environmentally sound management of e-waste, including developing technical guidelines on transboundary movements of e-waste. A major intent of the work on the guidelines was to enhance definitions of waste versus non-waste. The guidelines were provisionally adopted by COP-13 (2017) but additional work was needed, and at this meeting, the COP was to adopt the final guidelines incorporating that additional work. However, significant debate ensued over paragraph 31b of the Guidelines:

    When the person who arranges the transport of the used equipment claims that the equipment is destined for failure analysis, or for repair or refurbishment with the intention of reuse, or extended use by the original owner, for its originally intended purpose, provided that the criteria set out in sub-paragraphs (a) (iii) and (a) (iv) of paragraph 31 above and all of the following conditions are met:…  [bolded emphasis added]

    Several countries expressed grave concerns about potential misuse of paragraph 31b that could allow exports of end-of-life electronics to be categorized as being shipped for reuse but would instead be illegally shipped to developing countries for dumping. As a result, the Guidelines were not adopted, and it is unlikely that negotiations will continue. Furthermore, the Guidelines that had been adopted in 2012 on a provisional basis still exist but they are only effective if adopted in national legislation, and it is unlikely that any country is going to adopt them in their current (provisional) form. The Annex IX B1110 remains as the “best” thing in existence now for e-scrap not to be treated as waste:

    B1110 Electrical and electronic assemblies:

    • Electronic assemblies consisting only of metals or alloys
    • Waste electrical and electronic assemblies or scrap (including printed circuit boards) not containing components such as accumulators and other batteries included on list A, mercury-switches, glass from cathode-ray tubes and other activated glass and PCB capacitors, or not contaminated with Annex I constituents (e.g., cadmium, mercury, lead, polychlorinated biphenyl) or from which these have been removed, to an extent that they do not possess any of the characteristics contained in Annex III (note the related entry on list A A1180)
    • Electrical and electronic assemblies (including printed circuit boards, electronic components and wires) destined for direct reuse, and not for recycling or final disposal

      Note:  The Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment (PACE), in which ISRI participated, was also initiated in 2009. PACE was wound down in 2017, but this COP decided to resurrect the Partnership. ISRI is unlikely to participate.

  2. Plastics:  In 2018, the Government of Norway submitted a proposal to amend the Basel Convention so that exporters of certain types of “low-value” and difficult-to-recycle plastics would be required to file a Prior Informed Consent (PIC) request. The recycling industry, coupled with plastics producers intent on promoting their sustainability efforts, have been arguing against the administrative burdens of the PIC system in discouraging trade of all plastics, including exports out of countries that do not have recycling capacity. Such procedures could also to lead to more illicit trade.

The original intent of the proposal was to protect against leakage in the marine environment, but during the COP, the focus broadened to inserting controls to protect against all plastics pollution. It was clear even before the COP began that the Norwegian proposal had much support from Basel Convention parties, including governments that were concerned about flaws and loopholes but would still support it because of political pressure at home to support anything that would address marine litter issues. This topic took up much of the time of the two-week COP, and in the end, the following amendments to the Convention were approved: 

Annex II:  A new “Y48” entry that covers mixed, highly contaminated (but not hazardous) plastics unless they fall under one of the categories that mirror the new Annex IX B3011. These materials would require prior informed consent before export from one party to another.

Annex VIII:  A new A3210 for plastics that have hazardous constituents and/or exhibit hazardous characteristics, such as flammable or infectious.

Annex IX:  Sunset the existing B3010 plastic scrap category and replace with a new B3011 plastic waste category that sets the conditions for materials that are not controlled, including being “almost free” of contamination and other wastes and “almost exclusively” of one resin…and they must be bound for responsible recycling. Mixtures of polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are the only mixtures allowed (the water bottle was the subject of hours of deliberation).

The United States is not a party to the Basel Convention, which bars parties from trading in controlled materials unless an Article 11 agreement is in place. The United States has agreements with OECD countries, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. Under the agreements with the latter four, the United States can only receive materials; exports are not allowed. Furthermore, for e-scrap recyclers, plastics that are derived from the recycling process that are homogenous and clean will not be under the controls of the Convention. Mixes of different polymers, different shapes and containing non-plastic constituents will be controlled. That said, a footnote was added in that “national and international specifications can serve as a reference,” which we believe means that materials that meet an ISRI Specification (and is indicated as such in export/import documentation) could be exempt from the PIC procedure.

The plastics debate in Geneva made clear that the scope of the Basel Convention’s mandate is broadening to waste streams that are perceived to be the most harmful to the environment. This meeting has set a precedent for any Basel Convention party to bring forward proposals to amend the Convention in order to impose controls on other materials, such as paper or non-hazardous metals. Because of this, ISRI will continue to actively participate in high level and working group meetings and work closely with partners in the United States (the U.S. Government, American Chemistry Council and individual recycling and non-recycling companies) and around the world (the BIR, World Plastics Council and individual governments) to defend the interests of the recycling industry. That will include participating in a new Partnership for Plastic Waste, which the COP agreed to create as a mechanism for all stakeholders to work on initiatives and guidelines for the “minimization, collection and promotion of environmentally sound management (ESM) of plastic wastes” and to enhance the implementation of the new Convention amendments.

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