New rules to combat the “wild west” of plastic waste dumped in poorer countries Plastics
According to a cross-border waste chief at the United Nations, new international rules to combat the global plastic trade in the “wild west”, in which wealthy nations dump contaminated plastic waste on poorer ones, will lead to a cleaner ocean within five years.
The rules, which come into effect January 1, aim to make trade more transparent so developing countries like Vietnam and Malaysia can reject low-quality, difficult-to-recycle waste before it is even shipped.
“I am optimistic that we will see results in five years,” said Rolph Payet, General Manager of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. “The people at the front will tell us if there is less plastic in the ocean. I don’t see this in the next two to three years, but on the horizon of five years. This amendment is just the beginning. “
Currently, developing countries – many of which have recycling industries that take over shipments from other countries – cannot tell if a particular plastic shipment is indeed recyclable or if it is too contaminated to be used before it arrives.
Waste that cannot be recycled is usually illegally incinerated or dumped in landfills or waterways.
Only 9% of all plastics ever produced have been recycled. About 12% were burned. The other 79% has accumulated in landfills, landfills and the natural environment, where it is often washed into rivers via sewage, rain and flooding. Much of it ends up in the ocean.
The new rules, agreed by more than 180 nations as part of an amendment to the Basel Convention, introduce a “prior informed consent” system for all exports of difficult-to-recycle or contaminated plastic.
Payet acknowledged that stricter export controls could initially result in large plastic exporting nations like the UK and the US dumping waste into landfills and incinerators instead.
“In the short term there will be a landfill, there will be an incineration of the plastic waste,” he said. “But in the long run, if government policies are right and consumer pressure continues, it will create the environment for more recycling and a more circular approach to plastic.”
Turkey is the largest export market for UK plastic waste, with Malaysia in second place according to October data.
So far this year, the UK has had 22 return requests from seven countries to take back plastic exports, the environmental agency told the Guardian. These include Malaysia, which returned 42 containers with “illegal” waste in January, as well as Indonesia, Vietnam, Romania, Croatia, Poland and Belgium.
Under the new rules, 20 of these 22 requests would have required prior approval, which would likely have resulted in rejections. The Basel Amendment has been incorporated into UK law so that UK regulators can implement and enforce it.
Payet said China’s 2018 ban on imports of plastic waste caused “shock waves” from developed countries that have relied on China to take material they cannot recycle themselves.
“The export ban to China was a signal to the world that something was seriously wrong and that we had to fix it.”
In addition to plastic waste, developing countries also export the hidden health and environmental costs of disposal. Many of the nations that import problematic or highly contaminated plastic do not have the proper facilities to deal with it.
“It was the wild west for plastics,” Payet said. “It was easier for everyone to put everything in one container and export it without asking questions: ‘Does this country have the ability to handle it, the technology to handle it – and what can we do with the things that we do can? Don’t recycle? ‘”
The amendment is a “catalyst” for change, he said, and it is now up to governments to encourage the recycling sector, a low-margin industry, and other private sector companies to innovate.
“Industry, consumers and supermarkets are under a lot of pressure to innovate. Covid-19 threw a wrench into the job, but it also helps us think a lot more about how to repackage food in healthier ways. “
Gama recycling plant in the southern Turkish province of Gaziantep. Turkey is the UK’s largest export market for plastic waste. Photo: Yasin Akgül / AFP / Getty
Great Britain, which is the world’s largest producer of plastics alongside the USA, exports two thirds of its plastic waste. The UK’s total exports of plastic waste to non-EU countries amounted to 22.9 million kg in October, of which 13.9 million kg to Turkey.
A spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said he had committed to banning the export of polluting plastic waste to non-OECD countries and putting stricter controls on waste exports, even though the UK was still 7.1 as of October Million kg sent to Malaysia which is not in the OECD.
Simon Ellin of the UK Recycling Association warned that the new regulations could mean more plastic waste going to landfills or incinerators.
“In the UK we export about 70% of the plastic we collect because we don’t have the processing capacity to handle it,” said Ellin. “Much more is burned and dumped.”
Despite these “short-term hiccups,” said Tim Grabiel, attorney with the Environmental Investigation Agency, the new rules would have a positive impact. “Personally, I believe this can have very positive effects from an ethical and environmental point of view,” he said. “[Contaminated plastic] was an economic burden for developing countries. We will see a smaller amount going to developing countries and this will free up their waste management capacity for their own household waste. “