By Cate Hull
Earlier this month, 180 countries agreed in Geneva to add mixed plastic scrap to the Basel Convention, the treaty that controls the international movement of hazardous waste, according to a report in National Geographic.
Under the amended treaty, exporters must first obtain consent from the governments of receiving nations before shipping the most contaminated, mixed, or unrecyclable plastic waste. Requiring that kind of special attention is regarded as a crucial step in helping the world gain control of a plastic pollution crisis that has already seen 100 million tons of plastic waste leak into the world’s oceans, according to United Nations figures.
David Azoulay of the Center for International Environmental Law, a research and advocacy group, said the action “shows what ambitious international leadership looks like.”
Plastic waste shipments became an issue last year after China, the world’s biggest importer of plastic scrap, stopped buying non-industrial plastic scrap, upending a $200 billion global recycling industry. By 2030 China’s new policy will have displaced more than 120 million tons of mixed or contaminated plastic, according to a study published last year.
Because of that change, other Southeast Asian nations, including Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia, were quickly overwhelmed with shipments of waste that they did not have the capacity to handle. Several countries acted to stop shipments at their ports. In the West, plastic trash piled up on the docks in San Francisco and in the U.K. and other European nations, as trash exporters searched for new buyers.
This development comes as many shipping companies are planning to go carbon neutral in the future.
Shipping giant Maersk wants to get there by 2050 and is already testing biofuels to get there.
“We aim to learn more about using biofuels in general and to understand the possibilities around increasing its usage in a sustainable and economical way,” said John Kornerup, head of sustainability strategy and climate change at Maersk.
The largest shipping company in the world, Maersk is the first to commit to decarbonize in line with the United Nations International Maritime Organization’s carbon reduction goals. In April 2018, the organization reached an agreement calling for a 50 percent reduction in shipping emissions by 2050, based on a 2008 baseline.
In Geneva, U.S. observers argued against amending the Convention to add plastic scrap and suggested voluntary measures to contain plastics pollution would be more effective than binding measures, according to an observer of the discussion in Geneva.
The U.S. also suggested that better infrastructure in developing nations would be a more effective solution. Its suggestions carried little weight in the negotiations because the U.S. has signed but not ratified the treaty.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a recycling trade group, said in a statement that the amendments to the Convention “will hamper the world’s ability to recycle plastic material.…” Requiring prior informed consent from importing countries, the group argued, will create “an administrative burden that will make it harder for countries without recycling capacity to export collected plastics to countries with infrastructure in place.”
Cate Hull is the CEO of FreightExchange, a freight and logistics company based in Sydney.