Washington — A landmark United Nations treaty adopted May 10 limiting trade in plastic waste may, in the eyes of some industry groups, have unintended consequences that will hurt recycling.
That is the early assessment coming from plastics and recycling industry groups, after the U.N.'s Basel Convention ended two weeks of difficult talks in Switzerland by adopting legally binding limits on exports of some plastics scrap.
As the dust began to settle, industries, governments and environmental groups are taking stock.
U.N. officials, nongovernmental organizations and some recycling organizations said the new rules are overdue efforts needed to better control plastic waste. They argued that lack of regulations and mismanaged global scrap trade overwhelms developing countries, which do not have proper waste management controls, and that contributes to ocean pollution.
As well, U.N. officials noted public concerns and huge petition drives on social media urging the Basel negotiators to act.
"Plastic waste is acknowledged as one of the world's most pressing environmental issues, and the fact that this week close to 1 million people around the world signed a petition urging Basel Convention Parties to take action here in Geneva ... is a sign that public awareness and desire for action is high," said Rolph Payet, executive secretary of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, a U.N. agency.
But some industry groups, while saying they strongly support the goals in the Basel talks of reducing plastic pollution, warned about unintended consequences.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington said the new rules would "impair the trade of recyclable materials" and said they "ignore [the] fact that recycling works to help the environment."
"This effort, intended to be an international response to plastic pollution in marine environments, in reality will hamper the world's ability to recycle plastic material, creating an increased risk of pollution," ISRI said.
The new rules require that exporters of some plastic scrap file a notice of "prior informed consent," asking for permission to export the materials.
The changes classify some types of harder-to-recycle plastic scrap as hazardous waste under the Basel treaty, which was first adopted 30 years ago to regulate trade in waste and scrap materials.
Supporters say prior consent gives developing countries more tools to control the plastic waste that is shipped to their ports, but ISRI said it could create "administrative burdens" on countries that lack recycling capacity to export to those that do have capacity.
"It 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," ISRI said.
ISRI noted the new Basel language will not restrict trade in plastic scrap that meets ISRI specifications.
The Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling, which also represents recyclers, offered more support for the new rules. BIR noted projections for big increases in plastic production globally and suggested the Basel rules can help boost the "generally too low" rates for plastics recycling.
"Countries across the world worked together to create a step-change in the Basel Convention itself in order to alleviate the damage plastic does to life in the oceans and on land," BIR said. "Within less than a year, the Basel Convention has reacted to public concerns and provided meaningful change.
"People absolutely do not want to ingest plastics through drinking water or food, nor do people want to see plastic cause harm to wildlife," BIR said, noting that implementation of the rules will now be key.
The environmental group Ocean Conservancy, which works with the plastics industry on marine litter reduction projects, said the new rules send a message to wealthy nations to rely less on exporting plastic scrap and deal with it at home.
"The fact that wealthier nations have for so long simply shipped much of their plastic waste abroad shows just how much work we all have in front of us to close the loop and create a truly circular economy," the Washington-based group said. "We hope that by increasing plastic waste transparency with an eye toward safety and sustainability, the amendment will encourage communities everywhere to develop sustainable, locally appropriate solutions to manage their waste and keep plastics out of the ocean."
The American Chemistry Council, for its part, said the Basel decisions may unintentionally make some recycling more difficult.
"This is a complex area that deserves more nuanced consideration than it has received to date," ACC said. "Emerging trends and technologies will continue to change the nature of traded materials, and decisions this week may unintentionally make it more difficult for developing countries to properly manage their plastic waste."
It said the Basel rules, for example, could make it harder for lower-income nations to export their recyclable plastics to regions with new technologies and infrastructure. ACC has been advocating for changes in laws in the U.S. to support new chemical — or feedstock — recycling technologies.
But environmental groups supported the Basel changes, and criticized the U.S. government, along with ACC and ISRI, for what they said was its opposition to the changes during the negotiations.
In a statement, several environmental NGOs, including the Center for International Environmental Law, noted that the new rules come after China's decision to ban imports of most plastic scrap in 2018 resulted in a "huge influx" of plastic waste to other Asian countries.
They said a majority of countries around the world supported the new rules.
"[The Basel] decision demonstrates that countries are finally catching up with the urgency and magnitude of the plastic pollution issue and shows what ambitious international leadership looks like," said David Azoulay, environmental health director for the Washington-based CIEL.
"Plastic pollution in general, and plastic waste in particular, remain a major threat to people and the planet. But we are encouraged by the decision of the Basel Convention as we look to the future bold decisions that will be needed to tackle plastic pollution at its roots, starting with reducing production," Azoulay said.