New Rules for Transboundary Plastic Waste Shipments

container cargo ship carrying plastic waste feedstock

The reduction of plastic waste and the regulation of plastic waste streams have become focus points of environmental policy in the past years. The plastic-related policy initiatives of the European Green Deal, China’s ban on imports of solid waste and the EU’s decision to prohibit single-use plastic products from July 2021 on mark milestones on the international and European level. On 1 January 2021, another major regulatory change came into force that has the potential to re-shape the global plastic waste landscape: the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments.

The Basel Convention, which came into force in 1992, is an international law treaty that regulates the transboundary shipment of waste by imposing regulatory control mechanisms. Its overarching objective is the protection of human health and the environment. The Convention aims to:

  • facilitate the regulatory oversight of proposed waste shipments;
  • prevent waste being shipped to countries which lack the infrastructure to adequately process and recycle it.

It applies to a wide range of wastes, most importantly “hazardous” wastes as defined by the Convention due to their origin, composition or characteristics. The Convention now has 188 members, including the EU, but not the United States.

Changes tighten plastic waste shipment controls

With the recent amendments, the scope of the Convention has been extended significantly with regard to plastic waste. The Convention previously only covered plastic wastes defined as “hazardous” (e.g. plastic wastes containing lead compounds used as heat or light stabilisers) and specific plastic wastes collected from household waste streams.

Since 1 January 2021, the Convention now also covers all non-hazardous plastic waste, including mixtures of plastic waste, that is not recyclable, or is “difficult” to recycle. As a consequence, most mixed plastics will now fall within the scope of the Convention. However, the Convention also contains a so-called “Green List” of wastes that remain exempted from the Convention’s control regime. The Green List includes plastic waste consisting exclusively of one non-halogenated polymer or one cured resin and destined for recycling. Further, the list comprises specific fluorinated polymers as well as mixtures of polyethylene, polypropylene and/or polyethylene terephthalate that are destined for separate recycling.

New requirements according to the 2021 Amendments

For all plastic wastes now subject to the Convention’s control regime, a so-called prior informed consent (PIC) procedure applies. The PIC procedure requires that:

  • A prior written notification of the envisaged waste shipment has to be submitted to the competent authority in the state the waste is exported from.
  • The competent authorities in the state of export and the state of import give their written consent to the shipment.

In practice, these obligations have to be fulfilled by using specific Basel Transboundary Notification and Movement Forms, and by meeting rigid documentation requirements and notification deadlines. For plastic wastes destined for disposal, even further requirements may apply. In such cases, the notifier of the shipment may have to provide a contract concluded with the disposer of the waste and to provide a financial guarantee in the context of the notification process.

The PIC procedure aims to give the authorities in destination countries the opportunity to scrutinise and, where they deem necessary, reject specific waste imports. For waste operators relying on export markets for their plastic waste as well as for all other stakeholders involved in transboundary waste shipments, thorough and timely adherence to the requirements of the PIC procedure is advisable in order to avoid delays in shipment due to waste material being stopped during transit.

At the European level, the Convention was implemented in 2006 by EU Regulation 1013/2006. Through an amendment of this Regulation, the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments have become effective in all EU Member States as of 1 January 2021. Hence, within the scope of application the PIC procedure now must be observed for:

  • plastic waste shipments from the EU to third countries;
  • from third countries to the EU;
  • for shipments within the EU.

Furthermore, the EU has banned the export of all plastic wastes not included in the Green List to non-OECD countries, as well as the export of waste to third countries for disposal purposes.

Due to the wide scope of the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments, the complex PIC procedure will now govern a great number of transboundary plastic waste shipments. For waste operators and other stakeholders involved in such shipments, these new regulations will lead to an increased administrative burden and compliance requirements.

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