Continued Uncertainty about E-Scrap Plastics under Basel Convention

Last year, at the 14th meeting of the parties to the Basel Convention, the parties amended the Convention to add controls to certain “plastic waste” in an apparent effort to minimize marine litter. These controls are scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2021. The Basel Convention was created to control and potentially to prohibit the international trade of “hazardous waste”, as defined by the Convention. The U.S. is not a party to the Basel Convention, but is able to trade materials covered by the Convention via its membership in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) and also to receive materials via existing bilateral trade agreements with non-OECD countries.

The plastics amendments creates three general classes of “plastic waste”:

  • plastics, including mixtures, that will require “special consideration” (prior consent from the receiving country) – note that countries “can impose stricter requirements”;
  • plastics, including mixtures, that contain hazardous constituents to the extent that they exhibit a characteristic of hazardous waste, will be controlled via the prior informed consent procedure; and
  • plastics that consist “almost exclusively” of either a single non-halogenated polymer or one cured resin (with two exceptions) and also are “destined for (separate) recycling in an environmentally sound manner and almost free from contamination and other types of wastes” will continue to trade freely.

The two exceptions concern certain halogenated polymers and certain mixtures. While generally excluding halogenated polymers (e.g., polyvinyl chloride (PVC)), the third listing specifically includes a limited set of fluorinated polymers (e.g., polyvinyl fluoride (PVF)). Furthermore, mixtures of polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and/or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which may reflect post-consumer PET bottles with neck rings and caps, can be freely traded.

As a general matter, with uncertainties about definitions aside, scrap plastics that are pure, destined for recycling, and clean should be freely traded as commodities while scrap plastics that fall short of that (e.g., lightly-sorted mixtures that are destined for recycling and clean) would be subject to the standards of, prior notice to, and consent by the destination country.

One special challenge for e-scrap plastics is the potential presence of brominated flame retardants. Their presence could be considered either contamination or meeting a characteristic of “hazardous waste” (e.g., ecotoxic, H12 in Annex III), depending on their concentration and the countries involved. In the case of contamination only, there are uncertainties about whether such e-scrap plastics would be subject to controls and prior notice and consent. In the case of “hazardous waste”, e-scrap plastics would follow the same procedures as for all controlled electronics.

Between now and January 1, 2021, many details of the plastics amendment to the Basel Convention need to be resolved, including definitions of “almost exclusively”, “destined for recycling”, and “almost free from contamination and other types of wastes”. ISRI is involved in the Basel Convention Working Group revising the Technical Guidelines for Plastics Waste, which are intended to clarify these definitions. Additionally, ISRI is a member of the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Partnership (PWP) and will be attending the first meeting of the working group in the Seychelles in early March. The meeting will focus on shaping efforts to implement the goals of the original drivers for the plastic waste amendments.

Another important aspect of the plastics amendment is its effect on the trade within the OECD and the consequences for trade by and with U.S. entities via the OECD. Since late 2003, the OECD incorporates changes to the Basel Convention automatically into the OECD’s trade regulations unless an OECD party raises an objection. The U.S. raised an objection, in consultation with ISRI, establishing a process that has been underway for months, with ISRI’s involvement, to try to reach a consensus concerning adoption of the plastics amendment either as-is or with amendments for OECD trade purposes. Failure to reach a consensus could have very negative consequences for trade of scrap plastics with and by U.S. entities. ISRI has been advocating for OECD trade rules that maintain the free flow of scrap plastics.

An update on these activities will appear in a future edition, so stay tuned. For more information, please contact Adina Renee Adler (202) 662-8514 or David Wagger (202) 662-8533.

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