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International agreement to restrict plastic waste exports

Governments from across the world have agreed to reclassify most plastic waste as needing consent from receiving countries before it is exported.

The move came at a conference to update the Basel Convention, which regulates the transboundary movements of hazardous waste and its disposal.

In the UK, the British Plastics Federation (BPF) last month gave its support to the proposal, originally tabled by Norway, which means that all mixed non-hazardous plastics would be subject to similar controls to those used to regulate hazardous waste shipments.

Mixed plastic waste would need ‘prior informed consent’ from importing countries before it could be exported, with only pre-sorted plastic waste destined for recycling in the country of export being exempt from this system.

The BPF said these changes would encourage an improved quality of sorted plastics from MRFs in the UK.

Basel Convention signatories – some 180 countries – also agreed to establish a partnership on plastic waste to provide practical support implementing the new measures.

Rolph Payet, UN environment executive secretary, said: “Parties to the Basel Convention have reached agreement on a legally binding, globally reaching mechanism for managing plastic waste.

“Plastic waste is acknowledged as one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, and the fact that this week close to a million people around the world signed a petition urging Basel Convention parties to take action…is a sign that public awareness and desire for action is high.”

Break Free From Plastic, an alliance of 12 campaign groups, welcomed the change to the convention.

It said that, after China banned most plastic waste imports in 2018, developing countries, particularly in south-east Asia, received huge amounts of contaminated and mixed plastic wastes that were difficult or impossible to recycle.

The Basel Convention would now give these countries the right to refuse unwanted or unmanageable plastic waste.

Von Hernandez, global co-ordinator 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.”

The US is not a party to the Basel Convention, and its Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries warned last year that the move would lead to “administrative burdens for plastic scrap traders worldwide”, and that US companies that deal internationally with plastic scrap would face severe trade restrictions because it is not signed up.

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