The European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services (FEAD) has expressed its concerns over a UN decision to include plastics as hazardous waste within the Basel Convention, saying it would ‘drastically reduce’ exports outside Europe and “downgrade” the performance of recycling within the EU.
On 10 May, after two weeks of meetings between the Conference of Parties (COPs) to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions in Geneva, 180 governments adopted the Norwegian proposal to amend the Basel Convention to move mixed plastic wastes from the ‘green list’ to the regime of the hazardous ‘amber list’.
Based on the new decision, global exports of plastic waste that are not perfectly sorted, recyclable, and uncontaminated will be subject to prior consent from exporting and importing countries as of 1 Jan 2021.
The decision means that exporters of plastic waste will be required to obtain permission from the country receiving contaminated, mixed or unrecyclable plastics, a process known as prior informed consent.
In a 20 May statement, FEAD said the move would make plastic exports outside the EU more difficult and more expensive “due to additional red tape and long delays (of up to several months) required by prior consent".
FEAD also warned that legal uncertainties within the new trading rule, could even cause exports to “become impossible” .
Under the new regime, it went on say, customs authorities will have to determine whether plastic waste shipments meet the conditions of exports destined for recycling “in an environmentally sound manner”; are “almost exclusively composed” of the same kind of plastics or are “almost free from contamination and other types of wastes”.
“In the absence of thresholds and a clear definition of ‘contamination’, the legal criteria for meeting the conditions will be highly uncertain and subject to wide differences of interpretation,” FEAD noted.
Classifying all plastic waste to hazardous waste, as far as the shipment regime is concerned, will create confusion and legal problems in the future, FEAD added.
According to FEAD, as long as demand for recycled plastics remains weak, the loss of flows of exports outside the EU will mean less recycling within the EU.
“If plastics that are currently collected and sorted in the EU are no longer fit for export outside the EU, the prospects are that they will be subject to energy recovery or disposal,” the organisation added.
To prepare for the implementation of these new rules in 2021, FEAD said it was crucial that public authorities responsible for shipments strengthened controls against illegal trade.
“Otherwise criminal trade will rise, while legal trade will plummet or stop completely,” FEAD warned.
To provide a “predictable frame for export operators”, these controls will need to be “quick, based on the same interpretation, and legally certain”, the statement added.
Another key point will be the shipment of waste destined for intra-EU trade, which will likely face significant new hurdles.
This is because collection, sorting and recycling often take place in different member states.
To address that, FEAD called on the EU to “urgently adapt” its intra-EU Waste Shipment Regulation accordingly.
“Long-lasting and uncertain controls will definitively be an obstacle for the recycling and recovery EU markets, which is a far cry from the direction given by the Circular Economy Package. Intra-EU trade of plastic waste must remain as it is,” the organisation said.
Expressing his concerns over the amendment to Basil Convention, FEAD president, Jean-Marc Boursier said the move ignored the fact that recycled wastes are traded on a global commodity market.
“Such a major drop in the exports of EU collected and sorted plastic waste will affect, in the short and in the long term, the existing separate collection and sorting systems and, finally, downgrade the EU’s recycling performances,” he warned.
In the absence of new markets compensating the lost exports, the decision could prevent new investments and creation of new jobs, Boursier added.
“Pull measures such as mandatory recycled content in products, reduced VAT, mandatory green public procurement, can create a demand shock. Imported products should also be covered by these rules,” he concluded.