Tiny pieces of plastics are in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Growing awareness of microplastics and plastics in the environment and concerns about the expanding use of plastics have drawn the attention of governments, media and nongovernmental organizations. They also have led to the recent amendment to the Basel Convention, which could potentially reduce international plastic trade and recycling if not properly implemented, sources say.
Targeting mixed plastics
Last year, Norway proposed an amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste that would affect plastic scrap. The Basel Convention is an international treaty designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, especially from developed to less developed countries.
After Norway’s proposal, the governments at the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP 14) of the Basel Convention in April voted to include mixed plastics under Annex II of the Basel Convention, which means they are subject to control. The amendment divides end-of-life plastics into three general categories:
- “clean” plastic “waste” that has been sorted, prepared to specification and is suitable for immediate recycling in the importing country with minimal further mechanical preparatory treatment processes, if any;
- “other” plastic “waste,” which contains mixed plastics or other “wastes” or is contaminated and is subject to the control system of the Basel Convention; and
- “hazardous” plastic waste, which is contaminated with Annex I constituents to the extent that it exhibits Annex III hazardous characteristics and is subject to Basel Convention controls.
Sorted plastics remain under Annex IX of the Basel Convention. However, come 2021, recyclers must obtain consent from the countries through which mixed plastic scrap moves, as well as from the destination country, before this material can be exported.
The notification process can take months to years “if the plastic hasn’t been cleaned and sorted,” says Ross Bartley, trade and environment director at Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling (BIR).
“This is about quality,” he adds.
Bartley explains that before the Basel Convention amendment, plastics were listed as nonhazardous waste under Annex IX of the Basel Convention. Under the amendment, clean plastics that have been sorted, prepared to specification and are ready for immediate recycling will retain classification under Annex IX and will not be subject to controls.
Annex II of the Basel Convention, however, lists “categories of waste requiring special consideration,” Bartley says. Mixed plastics now fall under this category.
The amendment will affect parties to the Basel Convention, as well as nonparties, including the United States. Nonparty countries exporting plastics to party members must enter into an agreement that adheres to the requirements of the Basel Convention, Bartley says.
“If you imagine a small island state that is collecting plastics from the people there and they have no means to do anything with that plastic but export it to a recycler, and they’re not able to meet the separation requirements of Annex IX, then they’ll be getting into the issues of having to notify the movements of those materials to get them to a recycling facility,” Bartley says. “That will present problems to countries that generally have no experience in that.”
Bartley adds that streamlining or simplifying the process by using an electronic system or providing guidance on the consent procedure could help countries better understand the new requirements.
The reason for the Basel Convention amendment is to establish better management of plastics and to keep plastics from entering the oceans; however, Bartley points out a general misunderstanding about the global plastic issue, one that might not be solved by an amendment that makes it “more complicated” for importers and exporters of this material. He says only 10 percent of plastic scrap is collected for recycling. It’s the 90 percent of plastic that is not captured by waste management and recycling companies that causes ocean plastic and environmental issues, Bartley says.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington, says the effort “will hamper the world’s ability to recycle plastic material, creating an increased risk of pollution.”
“Once they realize the recycling rate has come down and it’s uneconomical, I think they would have to change their mind.” – Surendra Borad, chairman and founder of Belgium-based Gemini Corp. NV
ISRI’s statement on the passage of the amendment reads in part: “Recycling is part of the solution to the global issue of plastic pollution. In fact, the amendment does not restrict trade in scrap plastic commodities that meet the ISRI specifications. However, as written, the new listings for controlled plastics, and the requirement that exporters file ‘prior informed consent’ requests, will create an administrative burden that will make it harder for countries without recycling capacity to export collected plastics to countries with the infrastructure in place. It also does little to fight the illicit trade and poor handling of end-of-life plastics that are the real cause of pollution around the world.”
The Basel Convention is working on several initiatives designed to help implementation of the amendment. The Basel Convention also has established a new plastic waste partnership that will undertake projects that support collection, provide analysis and improve information on transboundary movements of plastic scrap among other activities.
“Besides listing and controlling movements of materials, the Basel Convention also is wishing to guide governments because they have to do something to overcome and to capture these materials from households and get them into recovery systems,” Bartley says.
He adds that he is working on a public-private household waste partnership that will provide guidance and best practices to governments around the world on how to better manage household waste, including plastics. The partnership will provide guidance on everything from financing to collections and reuse and recycling.
A trader’s perspective
Surendra Patawari Borad, chairman and founder of the brokerage firm Gemini Corp. NV, Antwerp, Belgium, founded his business on trading plastic scrap. His company’s plastic division brokers plastic scrap from 250 locations for processing at recycling facilities around the world. Gemini exports plastic scrap—high-density polyethylene, low-density polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate and polypropylene—to recyclers and buys back the reprocessed plastic, which is then used as raw material for new products, Borad says.
Gemini trades 700 million pounds of plastics per year, handling 3 million tons of plastics since its inception. The company assists in every step of the recycling chain, from helping countries meet legal compliance to assisting processing facilities with financing and marketing of materials, Borad says.
He attributes Gemini’s success to its ability to meet changing legal compliance requirements, work with government authorities and proactively address issues facing the industry.
“Before 2015, I was shouting that it’s insane to depend on one market—China—for 75 percent of your business,” Borad says. “At that time, we started to give special bonuses to our salespeople to sell to non-Chinese markets, so after the China ban, our company was very happy because we already had new markets.”
He adds, “You can feel there are issues being discussed, debated, and you take proactive action. We knew this was going to happen.”
Because regulations on plastic scrap trade are evolving, Gemini keeps in contact with government authorities.
“We interact with environment authorities as an essential part of our business,” Borad says. “I think once you know this is the way you have to do it, then Gemini would try to stick by it, and that’s the impression the authorities have. So you try to remain in touch with authorities; that’s how you meet legal compliance. We have to make sure that we follow the rules. Because of this compliance, we’re able to make good money.”
Since the company’s inception, Gemini also has established a practice of inspecting every load it handles.
“In plastic scrap, when we started the business, I would not allow any materials to leave without 100 percent inspection,” Borad explains. “In the beginning, we were more often an inspection company than a trading company. Every container was being inspected. As things grew, there were some companies we came to know for 10, 20 years. We try to reduce them to random inspections.”
Borad says the Basel Convention consent requirement to export plastic scrap is not much different than the notification procedure that’s been implemented by the European Union.
However, he adds, “I feel this amendment has been made with ignorance. It’s going to reduce the trade substantially. In 2016, international trade of plastic scrap was about 15 million tons per year. Now, it’s reduced to less than 5 million tons per year. The trade is reduced already, and the Basel Convention will reduce it further because the people will have difficulty understanding the notification procedure and the bureaucracy will make it difficult for both importers and exporters.”
For example, Borad says developing countries need about 1,000 tons of plastics per month to remain competitive in the recycling industry. He says the international plastics recycling industry will suffer just as the industry “died” in Dubai because of the lack of local collection, import bans and restrictive regulations.
“The recycling rate will come down substantially in the developing world, which would be self-defeating,” he says. “I think what has happened unfortunately is the industry has lost the voice. It’s the press, the public and politicians who are in the driving seat. They are obviously less knowledgeable about the long-term impacts.”
Borad says it’s not too late, but it’s time for the industry to take control of the issue. He has become a board member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), which launched in January to end plastic litter in the environment. It has committed to $1.5 billion in investments to address plastic waste and recycling in the next five years.
“Now, I think recyclers are going to play a very important role,” Borad says. “We’re going to put a lot of investment in India to educate the waste picker, the collector. We are putting a lot of baling machines in [and] financing. People have become aware that we need to do this.”
He also says global brands won’t be able to achieve the recycled-content targets they’ve announced publicly unless they help invest in recycling infrastructure.
“We’re a little bit too late, but now we have to work very hard,” Borad says. “The challenge is very hard. We need about 4 to 5 million tons of quality recycled plastic, about eight to 10 years and $20 billion in investment, and we want to double recycling, so the only solution now is to change consumer behavior.”
He adds that the Basel Convention “made a decision based on what’s being talked about in the market. Once they realize the recycling rate has come down and it’s uneconomical, I think they would have to change their mind.”