On May 10, after two weeks of meetings between the Conference of Parties (COPs) to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions in Geneva, 180 governments adopted the Norwegian proposal to amend the Basel Convention. As a result, mixed plastic wastes have been moved from the “green” list to the regime of the “amber” list. Outside or within the European Union (EU), exports of plastic waste that are not perfectly sorted, recyclable and contaminated will be subject to prior consent from exporting and importing countries as of Jan. 1, 2021.
According to a news release from Belgium-based FEAD, the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services, following the adoption of this amendment, there will be a drastic drop in exports outside the European Union. FEAD reports that the latter will become more difficult and more expensive due to additional red tape and long delays of up to several months required by prior consent. FEAD reports that exports might even become impossible, not only in case of delayed or missing consent, but also due to the legal uncertainty on how customs authorities will determine if plastic waste shipments meet the conditions of exports destined for recycling “in an environmentally sound manner of plastic waste flows, “almost exclusively composed” of the same kind of plastics “almost free from contamination and other types of wastes.” In the absence of thresholds and a clear definition of “contamination,” the legal criteria for meeting the conditions will be highly uncertain and subject to differences of interpretation, FEAD reports.
Certain plastic waste should be reclassified and assimilated to hazardous waste in the “amber” list, but for the time being, no appropriate code exists, making some plastic exports impossible. Assimilating all plastic waste to hazardous waste, as far as the shipment regime is concerned, will create confusion and legal problems in the future.
As long as the demand for recycled plastics remains weak, the loss of flows of exports outside the EU means less recycling within the EU, FEAD reports in a news release. If plastics that are currently collected and sorted in the EU are no longer fit for export outside the EU, the prospects are that they will be subject to energy recovery or disposal.
To prepare for the implementation of these new rules in 2021, FEAD reports that it’s crucial that public authorities responsible for the shipments put in place strengthened controls against illegal trade. These controls must be quick, based on the same interpretation and legally certain in order to provide a predictable frame for export operators.
Plastic waste shipments that are today destined for trade within the EU will be affected by the significant new hurdles caused by the new rules, since collection, sorting and recycling often take place in different member states, according to a news release from FEAD.
“This international decision, of which we understand the motives but question the effectiveness regarding marine pollution, ignores that recycled wastes are traded on a global commodity market,” says Jean-Marc Boursier, FEAD president, regarding the proposal. “Such a major drop in the exports of EU collected and sorted plastic waste will affect, in the short and long term, the existing separate collection and sorting systems and, finally, downgrade the EU’s recycling performances.
“In the absence of new markets compensating the lost exports, it will prevent new investments and jobs from being created. The private waste management industry is ready to invest in improving the quality of plastic recyclates only if there is a market for recycled plastics. Pull measures such as mandatory recycled content in products, reduced VAT [and] mandatory green public procurement can create a demand shock. Imported products should also be covered by these rules. The EU has to urgently adopt its own intra-EU shipment rules so that shipments of nonhazardous plastic waste for recycling or for recovery remain under the current regime.”
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