Should it be much more difficult to export low quality recycled scrap plastic around the world, if there are serious doubts about whether it can be handled in an environmentally sound way in the country it is bound for?
That's a question that will be before a United Nations meeting kicking off next week to update the Basel Convention, a 1989 treaty governing global trade in hazardous waste.
More than 1,500 people are expected in Switzerland from April 29 to May 10 for a once-every-two-years rewrite of the Basel treaty and two related international agreements.
With rising concerns around both plastic marine litter and packaging flooding overburdened waste collection systems in the developing world, the Norwegian government wants the Basel delegates to change how trade in some scrap plastics is regulated.
Basically, Norway wants to put them into a category of hazardous materials that requires the countries receiving them to give their "prior informed consent" that they're willing to accept them.
It would classify some types of plastic scrap under the same rules as things like old TVs and computer monitors containing mercury.
Environmental concerns over exporting such e-waste to developing countries was one of the early drivers toward forming the Basel Convention in the 1980s. Now some want certain plastic waste to be considered the same way.
Environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives are pushing for Norway's restrictions, while industry groups and recycling trade associations have raised concerns that it could do serious unintended harm to responsible trade in plastic recycling.
Groups like the American Chemistry Council, the Plastics Industry Association and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries have argued that marine litter stems from poor waste management practices, particularly in developing countries, and that limiting trade will not solve that.
"In short, the time, energy, and resources required to negotiate and implement the amendments could instead be directed at more productive global initiatives to improve plastics waste management practices," the groups said in an August letter, shortly after Norway first made its proposal.
"The Norwegian proposal will do little, if anything, to support infrastructure improvements or mobilize international resources for those purposes," they said. "Instead, the plastics recycling industry would be weakened despite the important contributing role it stands to play in addressing marine litter."
But environmental groups see new Basel restrictions as a necessary upgrade to global trade rules, after China banned imports of plastic scrap last year and the material began flowing to other places in Asia.
"Once one country regulates plastic waste imports, it floods into the next unregulated destination," said Kate Lin, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia, in a statement. "When that country regulates, the exports move to the next one. It's a predatory system, but it's also increasingly inefficient."
Environmental groups believe requiring shippers of plastic scrap to get permission in advance could force more of the waste to be handled in the countries it comes from.
"As wealthy nations dump their low-grade plastic trash onto country after country in the global south, the least the international community can do is safeguard a country's right to know exactly what is being sent to their shores," said Beau Baconguis, regional plastics coordinator at GAIA Asia Pacific, in a statement. "However, ultimately, exporting countries need to deal with their plastic pollution problem at home instead of passing the burden onto other communities."
Greenpeace said its analysis of national trade data from the 21 largest exporters and importers of recycled plastic found that China's ban, along with similar action from neighbors in Asia following suit, has dropped global plastic waste exports from 12.5 million tons in 2016 to 5.8 million tons in the first 11 months of 2018.
The upcoming Basel talks are being watched closely in the recycling industry. Several speakers raised concerns at the Plastics Recycling Conference in mid-March in National Harbor, Md., for example.
Steve Wong, the executive president of the China Scrap Plastics Association, said in a speech there that it could have a big impact on recyclables trade.
He put the Basel discussions into a larger picture, saying it's part of a trend to recycling closer to the source of the waste and turning the materials into recycled plastic pellets. Then, he said, those pellets would be shipped around the world, akin to virgin resin, to be immediately used in factories.
A scrap trade ban is not the only plastics discussion expected at Basel. According to an online briefing conducted by convention organizers, delegates will also be considering new standards for marine litter and microplastics, as well as debating a general partnership on plastic waste under the terms of Basel.
Some industry analysts have suggested that Norway, in response to industry concerns, was open to revising its proposal to focus more on low quality and non-recyclable plastics and wanted to create dialogues.
Whatever the end result of the Basel talks over the next two weeks, plastic waste has gotten increasing attention in international bodies this year.
The U.N. Environment Assembly, basically the body's environmental parliament, in March took formal action to highlight worries around plastic pollution. At that meeting, Malaysia, for example, urged developed countries to sharply cut back on plastic waste exports and noted upcoming Basel talks.
There clearly will be a lot for delegates from countries, NGOs and industry groups to consider, but it's another sign of how fast the political landscape around plastic waste is changing.