Americas, Planet, Natural Capital & The Environment

Governments agree to treat plastic waste like toxic chemicals

Responsible Business | May 20, 2019


Plastic waste will be given the same international legal treatment as toxic chemicals, after 180 governments signed an agreement that acknowledges the hazard that plastics pose to human health and the environment.

At a summit in Geneva, around 180 nations agreed to amend the Basel Convention, which regulates how hazardous waste is moved across borders and disposed of, to include plastics. The amendment means that the global trade in plastic waste will need to become more transparent and regulated, in order to prevent it from leaking into seas and other ecosystems.

The USA, the world’s largest exporter of plastic waste, opposed the move.

The UN also announced a new ‘Partnership on Plastic Waste’, which it hopes will bring together the private and public sector to make sure that the new agreement is implemented.

The UN estimates that there is now 100 million tonnes of plastic waste in the oceans, with the vast majority coming from land-based sources. The implications of that are still not well known, but there is growing and alarming evidence that it has begun to disrupt ecosystems and find its way throughout the food chain, including into humans.

Several countries have recently banned shipments of plastic waste in an attempt to limit the amount of imported pollution. China, which is the world’s largest single source of plastic leaching into rivers and seas, was also the largest importer and processor of plastic waste until two years ago, when it banned imports. At the time, the USA sent 693 million tonnes of plastics to China annually, Japan exported 842 tonnes, and Germany sent 390 million tonnes.

China’s ban meant that those plastic exports were diverted to other nations, including Indonesia, whose imports rose 140 per cent in 2018, and Malaysia, where recent exposés of plastic being dumped and burned, rather than recycled have highlighted the challenges within the trade in post-use plastics.

Ahead of the UN’s Geneva summit, 1 million people signed two petitions on Avaaz.org and SumOfUs calling for plastics to be added to the Basel Convention.

Yuyun Ismawati, co-founder of BaliFokus, an Indonesian environmental NGO that campaigns against plastic pollution, said: “This amendment could be a game changer and force every country to set a higher standard of responsible plastic waste management. Toxic plastics disposed by rich communities in other countries will no longer become the burden of poor communities.”

Von Hernandez, global coordinator of Break Free from Plastic said: “This is a crucial first step towards stopping the use of developing countries as a dumping ground for the world’s plastic waste, especially those coming from rich nations. Countries at the receiving end of mixed and unsorted plastic waste from foreign sources now have the right to refuse these problematic shipments, in turn compelling source countries to ensure exports of clean, recyclable plastics only. Recycling will not be enough, however.  Ultimately, production of plastics has to be significantly curtailed to effectively resolve the plastic pollution crisis.”

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