Story at a glance

  • Many richer nations deal with difficult-to-recycle or contaminated plastic by exporting it to poorer countries.
  • An amendment to the Basel Convention restricts this practice, forcing bigger countries to deal with their plastic waste production.
  • The United States did not ratify the amendment, but will no longer be able to export to Basel countries.

When China banned plastic waste imports in 2018 it exposed just how much waste the world's wealthiest countries were dumping on poorer countries. Now, those countries are sending it back — and the world’s oceans may be better for it. 

“It is my optimistic view that, in five years, we will see results,” Rolph Payet, the executive director of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions, told the Guardian. “People on the frontline are going to be telling us whether there is a decrease of plastic in the ocean. I don’t see that happening in the next two to three years, but on the horizon of five years. This amendment is just the beginning.”  


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The Plastic Waste Amendments, as they are known, place a range of plastic wastes (certain types of clean, presorted plastic waste) under earlier import and export regulations. Among other things, these rules require "prior informed consent" for all exports of difficult-to-recycle or contaminated plastic to 180 signing nations. 

But some countries are already finding loopholes. In Canada, advocates are accusing the Trudeau government of "acting in bad faith," reported CBC News, by signing a bilateral agreement to offload plastic waste on the United States, which is one of only two countries that did not ratify the Basel Convention. 


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"This is, in effect, a backdoor for Canada to offload its waste problems to the U.S., who will offload to the very countries potentially that the Basel Convention amendment is meant to stop," Myra Hird of Queens University, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada who represented Canada at the G7's microplastics summit last year, told CBC News: "It was not the spirit of the amendment and what we were proclaiming to sign on to."  

The United States produces more plastic waste than other major countries, followed by the United Kingdom, according to a recent analysis that suggests Americans rank higher than previously thought among contributors to plastic pollution in the oceans. While the U.S. is not bound by the new rules itself, the rules apply to the Basel Convention’s signatories, meaning that the U.S. will have to find new countries to offload its plastic waste on. 


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Published on Dec 29, 2020