International controls on shipments of plastic waste will increase effective January 1, 2021. Parties to the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (Basel Convention) have just adopted amendments to add “plastic waste” to the materials governed by the Convention. The European Union and 186 nations are parties to the Basel Convention; President George Bush signed it on behalf of the United States in 1989, but in the ensuing three decades the U.S. Senate has not yet ratified it. However, the U.S. is subject to requirements adopted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which reflect Basel Convention requirements. Besides, most countries that might receive exports are Basel Convention signatories and should enforce its terms.
How does the Basel Convention work?
The Basel Convention was created to regulate shipments of hazardous wastes between countries, with the most important effects being to restrict shipments from developed to less-developed countries except with prior notification from the exporter and assurances of safe management by the importer. Detailed procedures in the Convention and in signatory nations’ laws and regulations provide for the following:
The “state of export”must provide notification of an intended shipment of subject wastes, either directly or by requiring the generator or exporter to do so, to the intended receiving country.
The “state of import” must reply, granting or refusing consent.
Shipment complies with applicable general and waste-specific requirements, including shipping documentation (such as U.S. hazardous waste manifests), receipt acknowledgement and exception reports, and record keeping.
Although the United States hasn’t ratified its participation in the Basel Convention, it does follow comparable requirements. U.S. domestic requirements appear in hazardous waste regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) using its authority under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). EPA’s hazardous waste regulations apply to RCRA-identified hazardous wastes, and to OECD Amber Wastes ( I wrote in 2016 about EPA’s revisions to U.S. requirements here).
Which “plastic wastes” are being added?
In May, the parties revised the Basel Convention effective January 1, 2021 to add listings for “plastic wastes,” in several of the Annexes used to define and list categories of wastes. In particular:
Annex II (Categories of Wastes Requiring Special Consideration), adds “Plastic wastes, including mixtures of such wastes,” with the following exceptions:
Plastic waste which is listed as hazardous waste pursuant to [the Basel Convention].
Plastic waste, “provided it is destined for recycling in an environmentally sound manner and almost free from contamination and other types of waste”and
Consisting “almost exclusively” of one nonhalogenated polymer (e.g., Polyethylene); one cured resin or condensation product (e.g, Urea formaldehyde resins); or fluorinated polymer wastes (e.g., Perfluoroethylene/propylene (FEP)), or
Mixtures of plastic wastes, consisting of polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), if “destined for separate recycling of each material and in an environmentally sound manner, and almost free from contamination and other types of wastes”.
Annex IX (conditionally exempt wastes) replace existing provisions for “solid plastic wastes" effective January 1, 2021 with provisions for “plastic wastes” consistent with the exclusions in the first bullet above.
Organizations around the world are preparing for the January 2, 2021 effective date, including sorting through the inclusionary and exclusionary language to determine the status of their plastic wastes. These provisions won’t apply to domestic operations in the United States, but if an organization imports or exports plastic wastes it can expect the other country to adopt requirements. These include OECD-wide provisions, although I haven’t found any indication of a formal OECD response to these revisions to the Basel Convention. Readers may want to look for methodologies presented in existing voluntary programs, such as the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment (which I wrote about here).
If your organization is involved in imports and/or exports of plastic wastes, consider the following checklist:
Does the organization produce plastic wastes from any of its activities?
If so, are any of these wastes transported across national borders for:
- Other management.
If so, is the organization reviewing these management methods, and tracking any statutory or regulatory revisions in countries of import or export, to identify whether revisions may affect the organization’s responsibilities?
Where Can I Go For More Information?
United Nations’ Basel Convention web portal
- Basel Convention Plastic Wastes webpage
OECD webpage on transboundary movements of hazardous wastes
Specialty Technical Publishers (STP) provides a variety of single-law and multi-law services, intended to facilitate clients’ understanding of and compliance with requirements.
About the Author
Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 25 years.
Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).
Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).
You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org