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Potential Basel Convention changes could affect the movement of end-of-life electronics

The proposals would expand the scope of devices that are categorized as “waste” under the convention.

June 24, 2021

Proposals to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal could restrict U.S. exports of scrap electronics if accepted at the meeting of the Conference of the Parties July 19-30.

Presenting at ISRI2021, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) 2021 online convention and exposition, the association’s Vice President of Advocacy Adina Renee Adler spoke about the proposed changes.

The Ban Amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal became law, Dec. 5, 2019, having been adopted by the convention parties in 1995. The Ban Amendment prohibits shipments of hazardous waste from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries to non-OECD countries for disposal or recovery.

In her presentation, Adler referenced a few of the nine annexes to the Basel Convention, specifically Annex II, which covers waste collected from households and residues arising from the incineration of household wastes that require special considerations under the convention; Annex VIII, which lists waste characterized as hazardous under Article 1, paragraph 1 (a), of the convention; and Annex IX, which lists wastes that are not controlled by the convention.

“Now, the convention, of course, freely uses the word ‘waste,’ even if we within the ISRI membership would never refer to any of these items that we handle and process as a waste,” Adler said.

A proposal from Switzerland and Ghana seeks to control all materials, whether they're hazardous or not. “And, of course, this has major implications for what's going to happen potentially if it is approved,” Adler said. “Right now, of course, the convention does not control nonhazardous end-of-life electronics.”

If the proposal is accepted, she continued, “All of these electronics, no matter what their characteristics, would have to go through the prior informed consent procedure, which is an administrative burden to exporters' as well as, frankly, to the governments that have to manage all of those requests.”

This is also where the U.S.’ status as a nonparty to the Basel Convention comes in, Adler said. “Parties may not do trade in controlled items with the United States unless there's a separate arrangement. And, so for this purpose, my understanding is that the vast majority of secondary use markets would be in countries where the United States would be banned from doing business because of our nonparty status.”

Given the status of the U.S. relative to the Basel Convention, OECD parties would have to decide what they want to do in terms of trading end-of-life electronics with the country. Adler noted that the U.S. has an agreement with Canada that would allow trade to continue unchanged.

Being subjected to waste criteria in the European Union and in other countries, she said, would mean that any item that is controlled under the Basel Convention automatically is deemed waste. “So, even where we collectively consider these all to be products, there is no clear definition and there's no consistency about what is a waste and what is not a waste, which will lead different governments to apply different regulatory criteria,” Adler said.

Under a second proposal from European Union, “R20: Preparing for reuse (e.g. checking, cleaning, repair, refurbishment)”, a new waste operation, would be added to the convention and expand the used products and equipment qualifying as “waste” under the agreement.

Adler said this proposal, if agreed upon, would require products going to another country for repair or refurbishment to include “R20” on the shipping documentation, adding that “significant implications” could arise as a result. “One is that under the convention, anything that is controlled by the convention is defined as a waste. So, by having a specific R code that is specific to repair or refurbishment automatically deem the product bound for that facility as a waste.” She added that different countries define waste and products differently and apply regulatory controls depending on whether the item is classified as a waste or a nonwaste. “And then when you combine it with this Swiss-Ghana proposal that all electronics would be controlled, that means everything that would go to another country for purposes of repair refurbishment would be considered a waste.”

Therefore, many countries could be prompted to apply waste import and export controls on shipments of used products destined for repair and refurbishment.

“There's been a little bit of pushback on the EU for claiming that this will only apply to electronics already considered a waste,” Adler said, “but then they couldn't even tell us what that means.”

She added that major contradictions also exist between the EU proposal and the e-waste technical guidelines that are in force in the convention on an interim basis. Adler said, according to these guidelines, anything destined for direct reuse, failure analysis or to prepare for refurbishment with the intention of reuse is not a waste.

“In our last meeting of the export working group, there were a number of countries that took umbrage with the EU for coming up with this proposal, especially when the EU could not answer questions about squaring it with the contradiction with the e-waste technical guidelines and squaring it with the contradictions in their own domestic law,” Adler said.

Given that, she said that while she is not a betting person, she thinks the EU proposal is less likely to be approved.

ISRI submitted comments to the Basel Convention Secretariat, Adler said, arguing that if end-of-life electronics are interpreted as a waste and not a product, the achievement of a circular economy would be impaired and the opportunity to extend the life of products would be prevented, which have negative environmental impacts.

“They think that they're trying to save the planet from controlling the movement of end-of-life electronics to another country,” she said, “but really what you could do is cut off that opportunity, and then you're going to have more raw material extraction, or you're just going to see these used electronics head to landfills.”

Adler also pointed to the role refurbished electronics play in helping to bridge the digital divide in developing countries.