Wealthy Nations Seek Solutions at Home as More Developing Countries Reject Plastic Waste Exports

On May 28, 2019, Malaysia's environment minister announced that they are sending 3,000 metric tons of contaminated plastic wastes back to their countries of origin, including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Along with the Philippines, which is sending 2,400 tons of illegally exported trash back to Canada, Malaysia highlights how controversial the global trade in plastic trash has become.

Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia are all stopping the flows of plastics that once went to China but were rerouted after China started refusing it. They are looking for support from many countries that are concerned about waste dumping and plastic pollution. At a meeting in Geneva in May 2019, 186 countries agreed to restrict international trade in scrap plastics to prevent dumping of plastics.

The Basel Convention, which governs the international waste trade, started in 1989 because of the numerous cases of hazardous waste dumping on communities in the Caribbean, in Africa and Asia. Many of its goals are not fulfilled, including a ban in shipments of hazardous waste from first class countries to third class countries for final disposal, and a liability protocol that would assign financial responsibility in the event of an incident. This agreement failed to encompass newer wastes.

The new provision that was proposed by Norway with broad international support, takes a different and an aggressive approach. It moves plastic scrap from one category to another category of materials that are not hazardous but are linked to the same trade controls as those that are deemed as hazardous. These plastics can be shipped overseas for disposal or recycling only with the express consent of the country where it would be imported.

The United States of America signed the treaty in 1989, but they never ratified it and it is not bound by the terms of the treaty. But the Basel Convention member countries can't accept any restricted waste imports from the United States unless they have reached a bilateral or even a regional agreement that meets Basel's environmental provisions. The U.S already has such an agreement with fellow OECD member countries.

China's policy restricting imports of scrap, Operation National Sword, was a driver for updating the treaty. Before the ban, China imported almost half of the world's scrap paper and plastic. Now scrap exporters in wealthy nations are struggling to find alternate markets and bookst recycling domestically.

Trends in the United States shows these shifts. Plastic scrap exports to China decreased from 250,000 tons in the spring of 2017 to almost zero in the spring of 2019. U.S exports of plastic waste to all countries fell from 750,000 tons to 375,000 tons over the same time period.

Most waste and recycling policies in the U.S are made at the local level, and the last year it has been a transformative time. Without ready markets abroad to take in the scrap, recyclers are raising prices, which then is leading some municipalities to reduce or remove curbside recycling programs. A lot of plastic products in groups of 3 to 7, the least recyclable types, are being sent to landfills.

In a more positive note, recycling authorities have launched investment in recycling infrastructure and public education campaigns and they are on the rise. There is an energy at trade meetings around improving options for plastic recycling.