The United States and Canada have reached an agreement to continue allowing plastic recycling scrap to be traded between the two countries, ahead of stricter new global regulations that could limit U.S. exports.
The Basel Convention, a treaty signed by more than 180 countries, is imposing new restrictions on plastic scrap trade around the world starting Jan. 1.
It's seen as a way to give developing countries more control over imports and limit potential environmental damage from plastic waste that can't be properly recycled.
But since the United States has not ratified the Basel agreement, its exports would face even tighter restrictions than nations within the global treaty.
The agreement between the two North American nations is designed to allow continued trade of non-hazardous plastic scrap between them. Canada is part of Basel.
Industry officials are hailing the agreement as allowing continued trade of properly managed scrap, but environmental groups say it violates Canada's commitments made under Basel.
Adina Renee Adler, vice president of advocacy at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington, said a provision of the Basel agreement known as Article 11 allows countries within Basel to negotiate side agreements with those outside the pact.
She said the U.S.-Canadian bilateral agreement essentially "will preserve the status quo in trade … of all non-hazardous plastics."
"This is a real positive development for all of us," Adler said in a November 19 presentation at the online 2020 MRF Summit.
The agreement between the two countries, signed in late October, specifically prohibits exports from Canada that would pass though the United States on their way to another Basel nation.
It also commits both countries to good environmental practices for any traded scrap, according to a summary of the agreement from the agency Environment and Climate Change Canada.
"The Arrangement affirms that Canada and the United States manage such waste in an environmentally sound manner, and intend to maintain measures to provide for the environmentally sound management of such waste and scrap in order to protect human health and the environment," the Canadian statement said.
A group of environmental organizations, however, are challenging the Canadian government's decision to reach an agreement with the U.S.
In a Dec. 2 letter to Canadian officials, the NGOs criticized the two governments for negotiating the bilateral pact in secrecy and said it could violate Canada's commitments under Basel.
They said the global deal requires that any Article 11 side agreements must not be "less environmentally sound" than Basel itself, and they called for stricter procedures to be put into the bilateral pact.
The NGO letter was signed by the group Right On Canada and the Basel Action Network, with support from The Plastic Pollution Coalition, Surfrider Foundation and others.
They said the bilateral agreement could be a Basel loophole for Canadian waste, once in the United States, to be re-exported to a third country.
"We are deeply concerned that the Canada-United States Arrangement on export of plastic wastes … does not comply with the Basel Convention," they said, "and further sends a message to the world that Canada is willing to violate international law and wants the environmental trade rules they helped negotiate to apply to others but not to themselves or their trading partners."
A Canadian plastics industry official highlighted another wrinkle, saying it's not clear how the Canadian government's recent announcement that it could put plastics products on a list of toxic substances would impact waste trade.
Elena Mantagaris, vice president of the plastics division within the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, said government officials have told them they don't intend to put up new barriers.
"The discussion we've had with the federal department of the environment is suggesting that they're not trying to introduce more permitting requirements for the movement of the plastic waste, even if it's non-hazardous," she said in a Dec. 3 presentation to the Western Plastics Association in the U.S. "But we await the details and are expecting something in January 2021."