Nashville, Tenn. — The Basel Convention's limits on plastic recycling exports that kick in Jan. 1, 2021, may turn out to be a bigger deal to the industry in the long run than China's National Sword ban — and it could be for the better, according to one of the architects of the new rules.
Rolph Payet, the head of the United Nations organization that administers the convention, told a recycling conference Feb. 18 that he believed the new Basel rules could, over time, exceed the impact of China's 2018 ban that upended global recycling trade.
That's because Basel is designed to build a global system that will keep more recycling of plastic scrap in the countries where it is created, Payet told the audience at the Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show, Feb. 17-19 in Nashville.
Others, though, were not so optimistic about the impact of Basel. They warned of a bleaker outlook for growth in plastics recycling, or at least tough conditions for recyclers to fight through at the moment.
Surendra Patawari, the former head of the plastics committee at the Bureau of International Recycling trade group, said China's ban and other actions worldwide have dropped global trade in plastic scrap from 15 million metric tons in 2015 to 5 million tonnes in 2019.
Patawari, who is chairman of recycler Gemini Corp. NV in Belgium, suggested overreach of regulations was stifling potential growth in trade in recyclables.
"The future is very bleak," he told the conference. "As long as the governments across the world do not recognize that their collective over-regulatory actions are not beneficial to plastics recycling, the growth in trade cannot take place."
He warned, for example, that Basel rules could make it difficult to trade in plastic scrap with Africa.
But Payet, the Geneva-based executive secretary of the U.N.'s Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, pushed back, saying that the new Basel rules will correct problems in how the world recycles plastics.
He said historically too much scrap and waste have been exported from developed countries to developing nations that lack proper waste management, and that's allowed those more economically developed nations to avoid having to develop a stronger domestic recycling industry.
"I do not agree that [new Basel rules] will kill the recycling industry," Payet told the crowd. "I think it will create new opportunities for the recycling industry, provided they are willing to undertake this paradigm shift.
"It means more responsibility on countries to manage their own waste instead of transferring it to another country," Payet said. "That's a big issue with respect to the problems of plastics that we have."
More than 180 countries in the Basel Convention voted in 2019 to add plastic scrap to the list of substances regulated under the 1989 Basel treaty, which was initially set up to limit trade in hazardous chemicals.
Images of plastic packaging in rivers, oceans and land pushed countries to add plastic scrap to the items regulated under Basel, Payet said.
Under Basel, scrap can still be exported, but only with permission — or prior informed consent, as the treaty calls it — from the nation receiving the plastic recyclate.
Payet said implementation details are still being ironed out, but he suggested it could over the long term mean bigger changes, such as new rules for exporting plastic pellets with recycled materials.
Part of what's driving the look at pellets, he said, is government concerns about the role of other additives in plastic scrap becoming contaminants.
Payet said that included compounds like flame retardants that were added to the original plastic products but then may get into recycled materials, the environment or the human food chain as microplastics.
"What we are doing is introducing contaminants, toxic contaminants, in recyclable plastics," he said. "This is a serious issue that we need to address as part of this whole paradigm shift in how we look at plastics recycling."
Basel is not the only initiative seeking to limit plastic scrap exports.
A broad plastics-related bill introduced in Congress Feb. 11 by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., would also ban U.S. plastic scrap exports to any country not in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a 36-member bloc of largely developed nations.
A senior policy adviser to Udall, Jonathan Black, told the conference that the U.S. should not export plastic scrap to countries that have not been able to manage their waste well, including those in Asia identified as the main sources of marine plastic pollution.
Limiting exports could help to build U.S. capacity, he said.
"We say no exporting of plastic waste to non-OECD countries, the developed countries," Black said. "We believe we should be building these processes here, that this is good for jobs, for development and for the environment."